January 28th 2012.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of that most extraordindary, powerful display of public protest. Marching from John Street to the Fair Green, over 2,000 people took to the town of Ardee to vent their fury over HSE plans to close St Joseph’s Hospital.
Residents of the care facility took part, as did their children and grandchilden. While the adults brought with them a forceful roar, the young ones injected colour and vibrancy into proceedings too with their own carefully made placards.
In November 2011, then Minister for Health James Reilly had mooted the closure of care homes nationwide with 50 beds or less. Budget constraints and restrictions on recruitment were already adversely affecting facilities like St Joseph’s across the country.
Save St Joseph’s campaigners Kevin Bailey and John Rafferty sprang into action at the time, and the march was the biggest public protest in light of the HSE plans. They recently recalled an exchange with councillor Finnan McCoy at the time.
McCoy had asked the duo what promises they needed to not go ahead the rally in Ardee. “We don’t want promises,” they said. “We want builders, lorries and foundation stones – nothing less.”
The need for an upgraded facility for Ardee and Mid-Louth back then was urgent, with residents being cared for – and staff having to work – in sub-standard conditions. Investment was needed. Five years on, the need is even greater. But tangible progress has been elusive.
At the time, local deputies such as Fergus O’Dowd and Peter Fitzpatrick – who remain sitting TD’s today – aswell as Seamus Kirk and Ged Nash attended the march, with Fitzpatrick, Nash and O’Dowd among those to address the crowd.
On June 17th 2013, Minister for Health Reilly announced – having completed a report and public consultation process on the matter of St Joseph’s – that €750,000 was to be invested in the facility to bring the number of beds in Ardee to 20.
“Not only will these renovations enable the hospital to meet the HIQA standard 25 by 2015, but it means that patients residing there will be living in of state-of-the-art accommodation with world-class facilities,” Fine Gael’s Fitzpatrick said at the time.
“None of this could have been achieved without the support of hospital staff and management who have implemented cost saving measures to run the unit more cost effectively.”
Those cost-saving measures included closing the first floor ward at St Joseph’s, removing respite care and re-deploying staff. While the cash injection was seen at the time to an obvious boost to all concerned, it had come at a cost – and almost four years on, those cost’s continue to be saved.
The €750,000 – which the Save St Joseph’s campaign says was never allocated – has yet to yield any additional beds or significant improvement.
“The ward remains closed, Respite has been given to the private sector, staff re-deployed; but the budgets have been balanced. We are told we should be happy the hospital is still open”, Bailey wrote at the time.
“The HSE & Minister would appear to have achieved their objective.”
Subsequently, plans were drawn up for the extension at the hospital. The planning permission for the work – announced in June 2013, remember – was granted in 2016. A lengthy delay first seemed soon to end in February 2015 when a decision appeared imminent.
The wait then descended into farce, or even more so as some might put it. A planning notice at the hospital’s main entrance at the Fair Green was deemed to be incorrectly erected and the application was deemed invalid. The HSE had to reapply for permission – nonsensically delaying things even further.
Gerry Adams TD had been vocal on the failure to get to work on St Josephs and later that year, he aired his “concern” at the delay of work commencing. November 2015 saw the HSE push back the date for HIQA deadline for hospitals and care facilities to meet. In 2013, it was intended that St Joseph’s would meet this by the 2015 deadline.
Nothing had been done. The extension of the Health Information and Quality Authority standards deadline raised fears that St Joseph’s would be left to fester – with no set target to meet, at least not one in the near future.
After a wait of 31 months and 949 days, planning permission was finally granted by Louth County Council on Thursday January 21st 2016. So, while the HIQA deadline is no longer imminent, this meant that work was set to start in earnest? Wrong.
Just four days – in fact last Tuesday marked a year to the day since the announcement – had passed when the Department of Health announced that they would be investing a further €237 million in a comprehensive investment in public nursing home facilities nationwide. €9 million was earmarked for St Josephs – to build a brand new new residential unit at the site, in addition to the current building.
Outside of Dublin, only two care homes located in Leinster were awarded more money in the plan than St Josephs. Ostensibly a postive outcome, coming pre-election last year, skepticism remained in Ardee about how the promise would be acted on. After all, the previous investment never came to pass.
Based on the HSE’s original timeframe, the residents of St Joseph’s should now be well over a year settled into their HIQA compliant care facility. Now, they say this new residential build will not be ready before 2021. They have given themselves as much breathing space as possible.
By that stage, it will be almost 10 years since the Save St Joseph’s rally that so brought together a community in unison, fighting for one common goal. It will have been a decade, hopefully capped at that, of anguish, confusion and fear for residents, family members staff and locals at large.
“Even if the millions of euro was now magically available for the promised new builds for St Joseph’s Ardee & St Mary’s Drogheda in the morning, the simple fact, – and the elephant in the room – is that the resource stripping and staffing embargo of the past five years has left both services, and indeed, that of the Louth County in a position that right now existing beds are empty,” Bailey and Rafferty wrote in an open letter late last year.
“We remain sceptical but stubbornly optimistic, despite so many other promises having been broken in the past.”