GP candidates battle decline of rural communities

Independents Michael Harty and Jerry Cowley part of ‘No Doctor, No Village’ campaign

Independent general election candidate Dr Michael Harty (standing, centre) chatting to Kinvara men Patrick Quinn, Michael O’Loughlin, Michael O’Loughlin jnr and Patrick O’Loughlin during a visit to Ennis Mart. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Independent general election candidate Dr Michael Harty (standing, centre) chatting to Kinvara men Patrick Quinn, Michael O’Loughlin, Michael O’Loughlin jnr and Patrick O’Loughlin during a visit to Ennis Mart. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

Like any election candidate, Michael Harty is going door to door. But while other politicians hand out leaflets, the Co Clare GP is as likely to be carrying a doctor’s bag.

House calls might have died out in the cities, but are still part of the routine for many rural GPs. Harty hired a locum to fill in during the three-week campaign, but there are always patients who want to be seen by the doctor they are accustomed to - and no one else.

On the day we talk, he has already done three house calls, and a full day of campaigning awaits. A self-confessed political novice, Harty is running under the “No Doctor, No Village” campaign and is reckoned to be in with a shout for a seat in the Clare constituency.

He is one of two candidates running on the campaign, the other being Dr Jerry Cowley in Mayo. The issue is a live one in many rural areas.

Harty has been a GP in Kilmihil for 32 years and he grew up down the road in Limerick. The village is a crossroads in west Clare with a population of 300.

Decline

Over the years, he has witnessed the decline of his rural community and of general practice. It is a familiar story of services disappearing and populations ageing outside the big towns. There were 10 GPs in west Clare a few years back; now there are seven, and their replacements are more likely to be non-permanent and non-indigenous.

Rural general practice is “the area where the cracks first appear”, he says, as posts become harder to fill. Harty now serves an area ranging from north Kerry to the Aran Islands.

The decision to stand was a “whirlwind” event. Harty has no previous political involvement, but he was active in lobbying the Government last year for the restoration of lost allowances. “We were told there was no money,” he says. “So we went away and thought about it.”

A meeting held in Bansha, Co Tipperary, last November attracted hundreds of concerned locals, and about 350 came to a rally in Corofin in January. When local backbench TDs did not come back from Dublin with good news, an election run was mooted.

Ballyvaughan GP Liam Glynn was the prime mover behind the campaign, but Harty was seen as having the best chance of being elected.

“I’m 63 years of age. It wasn’t in my retirement plan, but someone had to do it. Someone had to shout ‘Stop’.”

Metaphor

He admits the campaign to retain GPs is a narrow one, but says it should be seen as a metaphor for the wider undermining of rural Ireland.

Jerry Cowley is also a long-established family doctor working single-handedly in a remote location. He has a lengthy political CV. He went forward in a 1994 byelection. He was elected in 2002 but lost his seat five years later. In 2011, he stood for Labour but was unsuccessful. He is back as an Independent “out of frustration, as the health system has gone from bad to worse”.

“Where I come from, they’ve lost the post office, the local shop, the school. I’m the only one left, and I’ll be gone in two years’ time. What will happen then?”