A Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone used her address at her party’s Ard Fheis last weekend to raise her concerns about South West Acute Hospital.

Áine Murphy, Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone opened the Rural Communities section as party spokesperson on Friday night (November 10), where she highlighted the removal of Emergency General Surgery Services at the hospital in Enniskillen.

She began her speech by stating that Sinn Féin “wants to make rural communities a sustainable place to live, work and be active in”.

Ms. Murphy said: “Where the quality of life is underpinned by good quality and most importantly accessible public services. For rural communities to thrive they must be places where young people can stay and build their future and a place where people want to come to live and work.” She explained that accessibility to public services is “becoming increasingly difficult” in rural communities: “Our primary care services, community pharmacies, mental health services and other allied health professions are crying out for support.”

Ms. Murphy continued by giving an example of this in her own constituency.

“The collapse of Emergency General Surgery Services in the South West Acute Hospital, Fermanagh and the subsequent temporary withdrawal of these services is an example of public services being removed without the full implications on the local community being properly assessed and without the community being engaged meaningfully on decisions that will impact them and their families,” she said, adding: “Rural social exclusion, isolation and loneliness are big issues faced by rural communities. Equal access to services is paramount.”

Ms. Murphy continued her speech by calling for investment and support from government policy.

She explained that to achieve long term, sustainable changes, there needs to be jobs based in rural areas, facilities to support quality jobs and employment and better broadband to enable working from home and access online learning.

Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and party spokesperson on Carers, Disability and Older People in the Assembly spoke in favour of motion 103 which focused on the rights of unpaid carers.

Outlining background statistics, Ms. Dolan said: “There are over 220,000 unpaid carers in the North – around one in eight people. The number providing 50+ hours of care per week grew by nearly 20 per cent since 2011. Carers NI estimates that unpaid carers save the public purse over £4.5bn in care costs every year in the North.”

Explaining that unpaid caring is a big driver of ill-health, Ms. Dolan noted that in Carers NI’s State of Caring survey, one in five carers said their physical health was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ and 27 per cent said the same about their mental health.

“These poor health outcomes are driven by the unrelenting nature of many caring roles and the barriers carers face to accessing regular breaks,” said the speakers, adding: “Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many carers were going months, often years, between one break and the next – a situation only compounded by the pandemic.

Ms. Dolan said the Department of Health “must prioritise” the building of a robust system of social care so that unpaid carers have access to the replacement care services they need to take regular breaks from caring and prioritise their own health and wellbeing.

Ms. Dolan explained that the Carer Poverty Commission shows that “28 per cent of unpaid carers in the North are living in poverty”, significantly higher than non-carers in the Republic of Ireland (17 per cent) and higher than the carer poverty rate in England, Scotland and Wales (24 per cent).

Ms. Dolan ended by commending the enormous contribution of unpaid carers who attend to the needs of some of the most vulnerable in our society despite significant challenges many of them face.

“They must be supported to continue to provide this care in the community,” said Ms. Dolan.