FF TDs resign whip over cuts


Fianna Fáil Sligo-North Leitrim TDs Jimmy Devins and Eamon Scanlon have resigned the party whip over their opposition to cuts in breast cancer services at Sligo General Hospital, leaving the Government in a precarious position.

The resignations effectively eliminate the Government's Dáil majority. The Government now has an assured 82 votes, including those of Independent TDs Jackie Healy Rae and Michael Lowry, as against the Opposition’s 82 votes.

However, that assumes Donegal TD Jim McDaid, who lost the Fianna Fáil party whip last November after abstaining from a vote on a Fine Gael motion calling for the  reversal of the decision to postpone a cervical cancer vaccination programme, would side with the Opposition in a vote.

There are currently 165 TDs in the Dáil. The seat of Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher is vacant following his election to the European Parliament in June.

Were Mr Devins, Mr Scanlon and Mr McDaid to vote against the Government, it would take the casting ballot of Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue, who only votes in the event of a tie, to win it for the Government.

Mr Devins and Mr Scanlon have been vocal opponents of plans to transfer breast surgery and initial diagnostic services from Sligo to University Hospital Galway, one of the eight “centres of excellence” designated in the National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP). The plan is due to be implemented tomorrow.

In a statement tonight. Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he regretted the decision taken by his party's two Sligo-North Leitrim TDs.

“It was not possible to resolve matters which the two Deputies discussed with me at a recent meeting regarding the transfer of cancer services from Sligo to Galway,” he said. “Over the past 18 months, breast cancer services have been moved from 20 locations around the country into the eight specialist cancer centres.”

Mr Cowen said he hoped he could rely on the two TDs to support the Government in other areas. “I would hope and expect, in the current economic circumstances, they will be in a position to continue to support the Government in the many other important and necessary decisions which will have to be taken in the months and years ahead.”

Mr Devins - a former junior health minister -  met  Mr Cowen with Mr Scanlon last week. The TDs proposed that Sligo hospital should be offered the same facility that applies to Letterkenny hospital in Donegal, which kept its cancer services because it is networked with Galway through oversight by its surgeons.

Mr Devins said after the meeting the Taoiseach “listened carefully and said he would go away and consider it” and respond in a few days.

Speaking on Today FM's Last Wordprogramme this evening, Mr Devins said he had taken his decision to resign after failing to recieve the necessary assurances from Mr Cowen. He said the idea of shutting "one of the best breast surgery units in the country" was something he "fundamentally" disagreed with.

"This is not about Jimmy Devins or about Fianna Fáil, this is about patients' lives," he said. “This is an issue which has been occupying most of my energy for the last two years since the National Cancer Control Programme was first published. It's something I feel very strongly about and I feel to represent my constituents to the best of my ability, this is the best course of action to take.”

When asked would he continue to vote for Fianna Fáil, Mr Devins said he would "consider every vote as it comes up on the basis of what the vote is for and the implications of that vote, I will then make a decision as to how I vote."

He said he will remain a member of the party. “I was born into Fianna Fáil, I’ve been in Fianna Fáil all my life and I intend to remain within Fianna Fáil," the TD said.

Asked if he was concerned the Government could fall as a result of his decision, Mr Devins said: "The bottom line is that at certain stage you have to do what you believe is right. I am a responsible TD and I will look at every vote in the light of what every vote is about and cast my vote accordingly."

Mr Devins was axed as minister of state for science, technology and innovation in a Cabinet reshuffle in April. At the time, he suggested he was being punished for supporting the retention of the Sligo breast cancer unit.

In a statement this evening, Mr Scanlon said he had taken his decision to resign with great regret.

“After relentless lobbying by myself and the people of the North West, I was unable to influence Minister Harney of the justifiable case of the retention of the cancer services in Sligo General Hospital, and I have been left with no alternative but to resign the whip," he said.

"The gold standard when it comes to cancer care is survival rates, and the outcomes achieved in Sligo General Hospital since the implementation of the recommendations of the O’Higgins report of 2000, have been at least as good and in some cases better than those achieved nationally," Mr Scanlon said. “It is a wrong decision to discontinue these services which have been achieving so much for the people of this region."

Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly said today’s resignations prove the Government’s health policy was in disarray.

“It is worth noting that both TDs spurned the opportunity to support a Fine Gael motion in the Dáil that would have seen breast cancer services being retained in Sligo General,” he said. “Their late conversion to the cause though welcome, is of questionable value given that essential and life-saving services, provided to a standard of proven excellence, are to transfer to Galway University Hospital tomorrow."