Locals say campaign for extra hospital cardiac services is about more than populism
In a constituency with above-average unemployment rates and a history of job losses, the ongoing row over cardiac services in Waterford comes as no surprise to some locals.
For Seán Reinhardt, the government’s refusal to provide University Hospital Waterford with a second cath lab represents yet another blow to an already under-resourced area.
"That sense that we’re being downgraded has long prevailed," the local councillor told Newstalk.com, bringing up the cost-saving amalgamation of the city and county councils in 2014.
When former Waterford Crystal workers were left in limbo over their pensions in 2009, he added, it was people like John Halligan who kept the issue on the national political agenda.
"Even with things supposedly improving, you could get areas here where 40% of people are out of work.
"It’s like what Thatcher did to the north of England. Waterford has been left behind.
"The jobs that do come in are not the quality jobs that used to be there. The pay is low and that affects everything."
Put simply, Mr Reinhardt said, the now Independent Alliance minister "always kept Waterford on the map" as a councillor and TD.
"My own personal feeling is that he was shafted. I think he genuinely believed he had the [extra cardiac services] in the bag.
"I don’t know if he’s not liked or why he’s being treated like this."
Unite union official Tony Kelly told Newstalk.com that there was widespread disappointment in the constituency that the government-initiated review of Waterford hospital effectively ruled out the prospect of 24/7 coronary care.
He said a statement sent out by the union last week in support of Mr Halligan’s position was based on the concerns of members who had been in touch with its Waterford office.
Unite supports the junior minister’s argument that the hospital review was flawed, and claims that its terms of reference were framed to fit the government’s desired outcome.
"People were calling in to say: 'Look, we need to be supporting John in what’s happening here.'
"It really looked like he was becoming the issue and not the second cath lab," Mr Kelly said.
He cited a local radiotherapy unit for cancer patients as one of a number of services that activists had to spend years campaigning for.
"That was as long, hard struggle. We always have to fight for things we see as essential."
Like Mr Reinhardt, he dismisses accusations that Mr Halligan has compromised the national interest to curry favour with voters.
"If you were to ask people in Waterford about a second cath lab, none of them would say John Halligan is a populist. They’d say they want it too.
"It’s not just a parochial issue. It’s about providing equal services to everyone in the country."
Businessman Michael Garland, a former CEO of the Waterford Chamber of Commerce, agrees that extra hospital services are important for the region but takes issue with how his local TD has tried to secure them.
"I think John’s discovered it’s a lot harder to bring local issues to the fore when you’re in government," he told Newstalk.com.
"He’s maybe been a little naive in thinking he can be his usual rambunctious self on a national level."
Mr Garland, who runs the business advisory firm BizBoost, added that Mr Halligan’s threat in a recent interview to "bring all hell down" on the government did him no favours.
"The language he used in the [Sunday Independent] was very inappropriate. He’s hugely passionate about Waterford but there’s a time and place to speak like that, and it’s not on a national stage.
"Perhaps he needs to step back and think about what is the best way to garner support.
"He's gone in all gun blazing instead of considering how best to get the issue across the line. That’s the naivety."
Mr Garland said he thought every elected representatives in the south-east should be fighting for a second cath lab, as the campaign will otherwise be dismissed "one person banging a desk".
Politicians like Mr Halligan need to frame the issue as a regional rather than local one, he argued.
"If you get a heart attack after 5pm, you should be treated locally," he said, referring to the limited opening hours of Waterford’s existing cath lab.
"If that happened in Dublin, you wouldn’t hear the end of it. But when these kind of issues come up, the way they’re argued nationally makes it look like Waterford is constantly moaning."
In Mr Reinhardt’s view, however, Mr Halligan is aware of the regional importance of the campaigns he champions.
He cited the funding secured by the Waterford TD to extend a runway at his local airport as evidence of this.
"A proper runway benefits the whole of the region in terms of tourism," he said.
"A 24-hour unit in Waterford means as much to someone in Kilkenny or Tipperary as it does to someone in Waterford."