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Mater Hospital In Danger

For generations the Mater Hospital has been an outstanding institution on the Crumlin Road and throughout that time it has given enormous benefit to the health and well being of the people of Belfast, irrespective of class and religion. For years successive Unionist governments tried to make life difficult for the Mater Hospital, as it was a Catholic Hospital, being founded, and run, by the Sisters of Mercy. Ironically in 2001, then Minister for Health, Bairbre de Brún attempted to close down the acute services of the Mater Hospital.

Thankfully a campaign run by this newspaper, and supported by myself, together with the Mater Trust, and the community at large, successfully resisted her efforts and the Mater was saved once again. Of course at that time it was argued that the Mater would still remain as a local hospital, serving Belfast and Newtownabbey. That argument was seriously advanced by the Department of Health, despite the fact that it was proposed that Accident and Emergency services would be taken away. Still they argued that the hospital would remain intact. That was the spin that the Department of Health spun then and today we have a repeat performance by the Belfast Health Trust.

Now the Belfast Trust is arguing that the Mater should loose its psychiatric services, so that the psychiatric services can be centralised at Knockbracken, in South Belfast. In addition it proposes that the Mater should become a midwife led maternity service, with no consultant obstetricians, just midwifes. What happens whenever there is a serious emergency that requires the expert services of an obstetrician? Furthermore, if there are no obstetricians the Mater will no longer be able to claim status as a teaching hospital, thereby making it less attractive to medical students.

In short, the Trust seeks to remove from the Mater its excellent psychiatric service whilst at the same time cutting back on its maternity service. Inevitably of course in a couple of years time, whenever the reduced maternity services become less popular with the people, the Trust will then decide that there is no point in keeping an ailing maternity service open in the Mater. Thus in the medium term the hospital will be stripped of its maternity service entirely. What the Trust’s proposal will do is to turn the Mater into a hospital building with practically no acute services inside, making it a shell performing minor treatment.

While the Trust’s proposal include the retention of the Mater, as a regional ophthalmic Centre, including a unit for planned eye surgery and treatment, there is a serious attempt, albeit a subtle one, to divest the Mater of its other major acute services. Can any one seriously accept the removal of psychiatric services in North Belfast from the Mater Hospital to Knockbracken, miles away in South Belfast, while we continue to have serious mental health problems, arising out of the Troubles and extensive drug abuse? As we know to our tragic costs, this area has been plagued by the prevalence of suicides, especially among our young people.

In order to justify the removal of psychiatric services the Trust has coined a new Orwellian phrase, dressed up as so called guiding principles of key service delivery, which is to “localise services where possible and centralise services where necessary.” My response to this is, if you are applying this so called principle properly, then leave the good local psychiatric service at the Mater. Given the disparate needs of this City and North Belfast in particular, it is not necessary to centralise services at Knockbracken.

One final word of warning, the Trust reassuringly propose that emergency services be retained at the Mater, but goes on to say, in my opinion rather ominously, that there would be differentiation of services to improve patient care, based on the type of patient’s condition and needs. Perplexing words indeed, that allow plenty of wriggle room if the Trust so desires to minimize A&E located at the Mater. Watch this space, very carefully indeed!

Alban Maginness MLA


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