'Surely human life takes precedence over agreement'

In April, 5,000 people brought Killorglin to a standstill in a bid to save Billy Burke's life. Donal Hickey was there on that emotion-filled day.

IT could be described as a final, emotion-driven plea to save the life of a brave man who desperately wanted to live.

Anyone who was in Killorglin for the Billy Burke Rally on April 19 last won't forget the depth of feelings that speakers and the estimated 5,000 people walking through the streets voiced on that day.

The plea was directed, in particular, at Tourism Minister John O'Donoghue, a TD for the constituency and someone well-known to the Burke family, who said they voted Fianna Fáil.

"You have to help us, John. Can you do it for us? One life, John," begged Billy's sister, Lisa, tears streaming down her face as she stood beside the minister on the platform.

Facing the crowd, Lisa said her brother should not die because of medical/political bureaucracy and something had to be done for him quickly.

As the atmosphere became further charged, everyone applauded.

Billy's father, John, also spoke. Holding back tears, he said they had tried everything, but it was a waste of time. He accused doctors in Newcastle Hospital, where Billy had been removed from a lung transplant waiting list, of playing God.

In more than 30 years of reporting sometimes highly emotive events, I never saw anyone come under the same, almost unbearable, public pressure as John O'Donoghue did that day.

The crowd wanted action and he told them that while he was doing everything possible, medical people, not politicians, had the final say on whether Billy would receive a double lung transplant. "I'm a politician, not a doctor," he said. Some people present - not all FF supporters - openly expressed sympathy for him as he listened to cries for help from friends of Billy, who came up to him afterwards to let him know their feelings.

But Mr O'Donoghue held his ground and took it all on the chin. He was clutching a petition containing thousands of signatures that had been handed to him on the platform by Lisa. "Give Billy A Chance," said one of the many slogans being held over the crowd. "Help Billy Before It Is Too Late," "John, Billy Will Not Die Without A Fight," declared others in a direct appeal to Mr O'Donoghue.

Clearly going against the tide of popular opinion that day, he said everything that could be done politically was being done and would continue to be done and he fully appreciated the urgency of the case. "I wish I could say everything will be alright for Billy, but that is something I cannot do," he said candidly.

Killorglin shut down for an hour in an impressive display of people power. Time was running out for Billy and everyone knew it. In the crowd were Mick O'Dwyer and former Kerry star Maurice Fitzgerald, Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae, Fine Gael education spokesperson Olwyn Enright and a host of local politicians.

Reflecting the mood of the occasion, songs such as Trust Me and Something Inside So Strong, requested by the Burke family, were rendered by Alanna.

Some onlookers wore red ribbons, a symbol of hope and transplant operations. Billy Burke, too ill to attend, remained at home, but later saw a video of the event. He told reporters afterwards there was nothing he could do, but Micheál Martin, as Health Minister, had to have some say over an agreement between the Government and Newcastle on transplants and organ donations.

"If he (Mr Martin) doesn't, I'm being left to die," Billy simply said.

"I refuse to be left die over something that stupid. Surely human life takes precedence over any agreement between the Irish Government and a hospital?"

Billy Burke quotes

"In all cases, there is a national transplantation list and it is a matter for the clinicians involved in all cases to decide on the utilisation of organs for transplantation." - Department of Health statement on April 5.

"They have been trying to resolve this matter behind closed doors for 10 months. However, time is now running out and they felt they had no option but this approach which they have finally chosen." - Fine Gael TD Olwyn Enright explains why the Burke family were finally going public.

"Billy hasn't lost hope and everyone is hoping that something positive will come out of this meeting." - Billy's sister Lisa Burke-Joyce, on April 15, ahead of a meeting between the Department of Health, the Eastern Regional Health Authority and the Freeman Hospital.

"No doubt the Billy Burke case will be discussed, but the meeting is scheduled to examine the protocol between Ireland and the Newcastle hospital." - A Department of Health spokesperson lessens expectations.

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