Michelle O’Neill unaware of military staff comment made by MLA

More than 100 medically-trained military personnel are set to support the under pressure health service in the region as it contends with the pandemic
Michelle O’Neill unaware of military staff comment made by MLA
Sinn Fein’s Pat Sheehan (PA)

Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland said she was not aware of a comment by a party MLA that military staff may “get in the way” of medical professionals.

More than 100 medically-trained military personnel are set to support the under pressure health service in the region as it contends with the pandemic.

Pat Sheehan told the Stormont health committee that he did not wish to start a row about military assistance, which has proven divisive in the past between Stormont parties.

He told MLAs: “My only concern is that they don’t get in the way of the real professionals who are doing the work to save lives.”

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill (Brian Lawless/PA)

Michelle O’Neill said having been in an Executive meeting all day, she had not heard the comment.

She said the priority of her party has “always been to save lives” and would “never rule out anything that actually supports the health service”.

“There’s no doubt we are probably in the worst week in terms of the health service pressures to date, and very much mindful of the pressure that all of those staff are under and have been under for the best part of a year,” she said.

“In terms of disruption to service, that’s the job of the health minister, chief nursing officer and also the job of the trusts to make sure there is continuity of support and services in our hospitals.”

First Minister Arlene Foster said there was a necessity for Health Minister Robin Swann to call on the additional resource.

“These people will be as professional as the next medical person, and I think it’s wrong to try and impugn that they won’t have that professionalism,” she said.

Other members of the health committee earlier criticised Mr Sheehan’s comment.

Deputy committee chair Pam Cameron (DUP) said she was “astounded”.

“I can’t believe he has just said this, talked about military ‘getting in the way of real professions’, is he trying to say that medical professionals from the military are not real professionals? It’s astounding… I’m flabbergasted,” she said.

Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers said Mr Sheehan’s comments were “utterly pathetic”.

“Our health service is under severe pressure and we are about to receive support from highly trained, highly skilled medical professionals who will be able to provide relief to exhausted staff,” he said.

“Whether they are military or not, is neither here nor there. This is life-saving work.

“We are talking about extra help for those lying in ICU beds fighting for their lives. The Minister of Health asked for help and the MOD was able to provide it. We will be all the better for it.”

On Wednesday, Mr Swann said he hoped the decision would not be viewed as “divisive”, adding the Armed Forces have medical expertise and it would have been an “abdication of responsibility on my part if we didn’t avail of that”.

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