NEWS SPECIAL - The story behind the "Save Waterford" campaign

IT’S THREE days after 15,000 people, widely described as Middle Ireland, took to the streets of Waterford City to make known their opposition to a proposed downgrading of their hospital.

I’m having coffee with the architects of that massive display of community spirit and solidarity: two ordinary women who two weeks ago were living very ordinary lives.

Andrea Galgey, a single mother, was busy trying to balance rearing her three boys with her work on a CE scheme at Kilkenny and studying for a degree in community development.

Gillian Sauvage-Corcoran was a full-time mother to her two young girls. Neither had any involvement whatsoever in local politics.

“We didn’t even know each other,” laughs Andrea.

Nine days before the Save Waterford march eventually took place, the women who both live in Tramore, were each online at home when they stumbled upon a posting from Fianna Fáil’s Cllr Gary Wyse warning that the future of Waterford Regional Hospital was in jeopardy. They couldn’t believe it.

“I was so angry,” said Andrea. “Waterford is going downhill so badly lately. I just feel that so strongly. I felt that I had to try and mobilise people and so I began with setting up a South-East Take a Stand page, asking for help from people. I soon saw that Gillian was trying to do something too with her ‘Save Waterford’ page.

“We were trying to do the same thing simultaneously so we decided to join up together.”

By the following morning, 18 people had said they wanted to attend a march to protest against the proposed hospital downgrading and 13 people had liked the page. By the following week, hundreds and then thousands wanted to join a march and they had ‘likes’ on their Facebook page from people from Waterford, Tipperary and Wexford living as far afield as China, Brazil and even Afghanistan.

Astonishingly, the march itself which garnered huge national attention to the South-East’s cause was organised in just eight days.

“The night before was like the night before you hold a party,” smiles Gillian. “We were there worrying about if anyone would really turn up.”

Andrea nods: “Without doubt, inertia is our downfall. We’re terrible armchair critics in this country. It’s not easy to get us up off our backsides. But for us, this is about our kids. If we don’t do this, we won’t have treatment for our children if they’re sick. Unless somebody stands up for the South-East, we won’t have a university for them, we won’t have jobs for them.”

Gillian believes Save Waterford is about making “people empowered, as people feel so disempowered down here”.

“The feeling is that many of the TDs are just taking fat salaries but doing nothing to help the ordinary people. Many of them were just sitting on the fence on the hospital and people were so angry about that.

“We’re totally new to all of this. We don’t know the movers and the shakers. But it’s the ordinary people who have come to us. But for God’s sake, I had to ring my granny to find out how to organise a protest,” laughs Gillian.

Both women fervently believe that the people of Waterford can’t just sit back and wait for politicians to sort out Waterford’s problems.

“Some of the politicians have been great but they all have their own agendas. We want them all working together. We want a common platform. We’ve got messages of support from 13-year-olds and from 80- and 90-year-olds. One woman in a wheelchair gave a speech. She hadn’t been in town for eight years and she gave a speech,” said Andrea.

For Andrea, the hospital is the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I’m worried about the future of Waterford, the lack of jobs and then the proposed amalgamation of the city and county councils. Without doubt this move will serve to undermine the city. If the council amalgamation goes ahead, we could have to travel to Dungarvan to get the car taxed. People can’t afford stuff like that.”

Gillian nods furiously. “If one of my children was ill, we could have to go to Crumlin. First of all look at the cost with petrol. Waterford has such high levels of unemployment. People cannot afford this drive and shouldn’t have to do this drive,” she said.

Waterford is one of the biggest unemployment blackspots in the country. The national unemployment rate is 14.8% but the corresponding figure for the South-East is 18.9%. In Waterford, 15,000 people are unemployed, a figure that Fine Gael TD John Deasy described as “horrific” in the Dáil this summer.

Job creation in the South-East is also pathetic. Earlier this year, a study of the national spatial strategy found 82% of jobs created by overseas firms were centred around Dublin, Cork and Galway. Waterford gets little of the booty. Overall, after taking employment creation into account, 183 jobs were lost in Waterford in 2007, 483 in 2008, 569 in 2009, 439 in 2010 and a huge 764 last year.

And so Save Waterford isn’t the only grassroots campaign to spring up in recent months. Facebook and other social media also gave birth to ‘Waterford gives a Shirt’, a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek campaign based around the belief that “Waterford has nothing left to give except our shirts so we’re having a big collection to give to the Government so that they can have those too”.

Talking to different people in Waterford City last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the county and wider south-eastern region was a colony of Dublin rather than a region in a democratic republic. Along with a deep held sense of anger and disillusionment with party politics, possibly more acute than elsewhere in Ireland, there is a sense of loss in Waterford.

People talk about having lost all but one of the routes out of Waterford Airport, having lost senior IDA management to Cork, lost the Vocational Education Committee offices to Minister Brendan Howlin’s Wexford constituency, lost Waterford Crystal and Talk Talk. For many, the threat of losing cancer and trauma services to Cork or Dublin, was the tipping point.

LIZ MURPHY is one of the founding members of ‘Waterford gives a Shirt’. She and Cian Foley wanted to make a statement to the Government and they went looking for volunteers to help collect as many as many shirts as possible. They enlisted Pádraig O’Gríofa, Alan Murphy, David Manser, Paul Dower and Cian Foley, all of whom are self-employed.

“Our main raison d’etre is not to lose the city status here by amalgamating Waterford City and County Councils,” said O’Gríofa.

“I have two problems with the city county amalgamation. First, the narrow brief that was given and two, the Frank O’Regan committee to look into that.

“They were precluded immediately from looking outside the county bounds, which for someone who is in business for 30 years is bananas. If you’re looking for synergies and to save money why would you automatically exclude 50% of the economic catchment area?

“There has always been a close economic relationship between South Kilkenny and Waterford. It makes no sense whatsoever to not consider that relationship and expand the boundary.

“South Kilkenny has been running as a de facto part of the city for many, many years. Yet the committee said it was outside their remit. In fact, Waterford City council are the only council that have built outside of their boundaries. They built 800 houses in South Kilkenny, a different province,” said Liz.

The O’Regan committee, established by Kilkenny-based Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, said Waterford had only grown by 2.2% in recent years and that the State would be better served if the city council joined with the county council.

Astonishingly, the group believes the real motive behind the merger is nothing more than parish pump politics. “It’s petty politics. The fact that we’re not allowed break local boundaries? It’s stupid and makes no sense,” said O’Gríofa.

Comparisons with Cork and Galway are commonplace amongst the grassroots activists in Waterford. They all point to both cities having near a near constant ministerial presence at the Cabinet table unlike Waterford, the oldest city in Ireland.

More often than not Waterford has been without a Minister. Their last minister was Martin Cullen from 2002-2010.

They also talk about the region’s ‘self-cannibalisation’ or how the South-East has spread itself too thinly and so doesn’t have an economic engine with political and economic muscle. Wexford competes with Waterford. Waterford competes with Kilkenny. Kilkenny competes with Dungarvan, Clonmel and Carrick.

On the ground in Waterford, people display a deep disenchantment with the Government — a deep disappointment in Fine Gael/Labour’s ability to dismantle the old and reform our failed political system.

There is a real belief that their politicians aren’t out there fighting for them — that their allegiance is to the party and not to the people of Waterford. And it is from this disconnect that these groups have sprung.

However, praise for the city manager, Michael Walsh, is huge. Mr Walsh is more than aware of the city’s challenges but says he won’t let them get in the way, believing the city “has to develop a DIY attitude”.

“There is no silver bullet to the problems in Waterford. There is a transition taking place in this city from an industrial city to a more modern city. The dependance on industry was nearly repressive here. There is now an awareness in Government that the South-East is suffering more than other parts of the country,” he said.

“But the challenge is to make sure that everybody puts their shoulder to the wheel, previously there has been a lack of focus. The political system drives a lot of organs of the State, just look at what happened with property in this country. If you don’t have the right political mind-set, well?

“However, I think that the march last week showed a growing DIY mentality in this city. For us, the days of the 1,000 job announcement is gone, it’s about creating jobs and rebranding from the ground up.”

The patient

Helen Threadgold hadn’t ventured into the city centre in eight years. She doesn’t like “being seen” in her wheelchair and prefers to stay indoors.

However, when the 64-year-old heard a march was being organised to demonstrate public anger at the proposals to downgrade Waterford Regional Hospital (WRH), she immediately signed up.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the staff and healthcare at that hospital,” she said.

“They saved my life. No doubt about it.”

In 2004, Ms Threadgold found a lump on her leg — a lump that became increasingly painful. A GP sent her to WRH where doctors discovered she had contracted a flesh- eating bacteria called necrotising fasciitis. Survival is limited to just one in eight.

“It was awful, so painful. I was put on super-antibiotics, all the lower half of my body was badly infected. I spent nine months in Surgical 1 and for a whole month of that, I was given skin grafts. It was extremely painful.

“I died one night even, but they brought me back with CPR. Then my kidneys went, due to the pressure placed on them. I’m on dialysis at the hospital three days a week now.”

As a result of the bacterial infection, Helen lost a number of her toes. She also has long-term vascular problems and recurrent leg ulcers.

“I feel so passionately about that hospital. It really meant the difference between life and death to me. I attend there so often and I just can’t imagine how much my quality of life would suffer if I had to travel to Cork if I had any kind of serious turn.”

If the services are downgraded, there would only be a satellite dialysis unit at Waterford, she says.

Anyone with a potentially fatal infection such as hers would be sent to Cork and so could spend up to nine months, an hour and a half’s drive away from their family.

“We’ve lost too much in Waterford already. The hospital would be the last straw for me. It’s the reason I am here today,” said Helen.

“We need to keep quality services in our region.”

The businesswoman

As director of Caulfield’s SuperValu, Anne Marie Caulfield tends to form her opinions on Waterford based on what she sees in the rest of the country.

A Waterford native, her family has supermarkets in Waterford City, Kilkenny, New Ross, Enniscorthy, Tipperary, Cork City, Bandon and Malahide.

“Like the rest of Ireland, Waterford is facing significant economic challenges but it has a rate of unemployment that is 4% over the national rate and of course that effects business in the city and county.”

The supermarket sector has never been more competitive with the continued expansion of the discount supermarkets ensuring that each supermarket competes daily on price.

“We are holding our market share though. We’re working very hard to provide value. We also support the Irish economy and Irish producers and all of that has a huge knock-on effect on the wider economy. Nationally, SuperValu supports 30,000 jobs in this country.”

Anne Marie, like many more in the retail and agri food sector, is constantly reminding customers in Waterford and elsewhere that buying Irish means that Irish jobs are maintained and created.

And she says that while her company’s unfailing objective is “to give value so customers will keep coming through the door”, they can only do so much.

“Everyone has a part to play. We need the Government to do a lot more to stimulate the domestic economy. People need to have a few quid in their pocket to spend. The increase in Vat did nothing to support retail which is a huge employer in this country.

“There is a lot of talk about job creation, what about job maintenance and about helping companies to stay in business?”

Like many others, she says planned changes to the employee sick pay scheme, which would mean that employers would have to pay the first four weeks of sick pay, will shut more businesses in Waterford and elsewhere.

“There will be serious consequences if employers have to carry that kind of cost. The domestic economy needs more support and not be weakened. It’s easier to hold on to a job than to a create a job and the Government know that,” she said.

Anne Marie refuses to dwell on what has gone wrong in Waterford. Instead, she says it’s all about looking at where “we can grow and improve” by fostering Waterford-based start-ups and the burgeoning Waterford tourism sector.

“There’s a lot of talk about the big job announcements and how we need them but it’s the supporting of entrepreneurs that will speak for the future. It’s the small start-ups that will have good longevity in the region.”

The politician

Waterford City Councillor Mary Roche has to be most one of the most diminutive ‘larger than life’ personalities ever.

Speaking at a speed not dissimilar to a bullet train, she rails against the record of Waterford TDs, past and present, in not standing up for the city.

“Just look at what has happened to us. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and we have one of the lowest rates of job creation. In the middle of this, we have the VEC offices being moved recently to Wexford to Minister Brendan Howlin’s constituency, we have IDA decision-making being moved to Cork where they all have ministers and a lot more political clout. And now they want us to travel for an hour and a half to Cork or Dublin if we have a heart attack,” the former lord mayor says throwing her hands into the air exasperatedly.

“In this country, we’re not paying peanuts to our TDs but we’re still getting chimpanzees. We’re tied to voting for someone who went against a ha’penny for the OAPs in 1940 or put Vat on children’s shoes or somebody whose child sits beside your child in school. It’s nonsense.

“We really need to pull together in this county and in this region because we haven’t pulled together traditionally and have suffered as a result of it. And I am also seriously sick of the Government saying but ‘oh you’re a gateway city and you haven’t lived up to your gateway status’.

“Of itself gateway status is nothing, unless you get the tools which allow you to be equal and the investment, eg a university. How can you compete with one hand tied behind your back? As I keep on saying, if you give us the ingredients, we’ll make the cake. No bother.”

But while Mary may be scathing about the Dáil, she (like the ordinary folk behind the grassroots Waterford gives a Shirt and Save Waterford campaigns) fervently believes now is the time for the ordinary folk to get up and do something and to stop waiting for somebody else to sort their futures out.

“You have to think. Why are we waiting for somebody else to save us? We’ve got our billion euro motorway and other great infrastructure in place already. There isn’t going to be a knight in shining armour coming down that motorway laden with diamonds and gold. It’s up to us to go find that gold.”

She and Sinn Féin Senator David Cullinane have recently started devising a project called Doing it for Ourselves, around which she says they can help plot a Waterford where their children wouldn’t have to emigrate.

“It’s an early stage but this group, made up of people from all sectors of Waterford life, could do what the wider country needs to do. We need to think, how do we want to look in 100 years and how do we get there?”

The hospital consultant

It’s just 19 days since news broke that an expert group is proposing to break up the South-East hospital network.

Waterford Regional Hospital (WRH) consultants, including Rob Landers, have been to the fore of the fight to retain the existing network, having taken the unprecedented step of organising meetings to help rally the public to protest against the move.

The South-East Hospital Network is made up of hospitals in Clonmel, Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford which service 500,000 people in these counties and Co Carlow.

“If the south-eastern region is divided up with St Lukes in Kilkenny going to Dublin and Waterford aligned to Cork, the fear is that our numbers in WRH will drop so much that WRH will eventually lose our specialised cancer services, trauma services and cardiology,” said Mr Landers. “If we ever lost these services, it wouldn’t be good for medical care or for the economy here.

“Specific assurances were given at a meeting last week with the minister that we wouldn’t lose cancer or trauma services. But while I’m grateful for these assurances, the minister needs to back those up by putting the control process and governance structures in place to allow us to control our own destiny here.

“If the control of those services is given to Dublin or Cork, then the services are potentially liable to transfer at a later stage.

“We understand he has to wait for Professor John Higgins’s report to advise him on governance structures and that as such he’s in limbo at the moment. But this isn’t enough for us here. People are very concerned.”

Professor Higgins’s report is due to go to the health minister this week and should be before Cabinet next month.

“Certain consultants in Kilkenny do not support keeping a south-eastern hospital group. I wish that was not the case. I don’t understand why it is the case. But the very fact they that don’t want to be part of this group is threatening the viability of the whole group and the healthcare of the whole half a million population here in the South-East.”

Comment: It has a workforce, a port, airport... all that’s missing is the jobs

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