‘It’s really about basic rights for citizens’

What's best for the west

UNITED THEY STAND, DIVIDED THEY FALLDr Jerry Cowley pictured with fellow General Election candidates in 2007 at a Mayo News charity fashion night. Dr Cowley says political co-operation was often lacking among TDs from the same constituency. From left: Harry Barrett, Michael Ring, Dr Jerry Cowley, Beverley Flynn, John Carty (RIP) and Dara Calleary.  Pic: Michael Donnelly

Interview

Edwin McGreal

Solving the problems facing the west of Ireland and rural Ireland needs a change of approach and a change of mindset at government level, according to former Mayo TD Dr Jerry Cowley.
Dr Cowley, a long-time health and community development campaigner, argues the united approach seeing during the Covid-19 crisis and in the cross-party support for the Sláintecare health reforms are a pertinent example of what can happen when a need for action is identified and party politics are left to one side.
“It is a multi faceted situation but we are a small country,” Dr Cowley told The Mayo News. “You can know everybody else. I once got a letter that was addressed for Jerry Cowley, Ireland. It came to my house. That’s how small this country is!
“So it shouldn’t be beyond our capabilities to sort things out for our citizens, our people. For me it’s all about people. It’s the whole nub of the whole thing. It’s really about basic rights for citizens. So I would come at it from a rights perspective, the right to live, where you want to live within reason, enough to eat, the right to have enough to sustain yourself and your family through hard times,” he said.
Having campaigned for various services at Mayo University Hospital over the years, Dr Cowley said the lack of some essential health services in the county is illustrative of a wider malaise towards the regions and people therein.
“If something happens someone in Belmullet, them going to Galway is as far as people from Dublin going to Galway and there would be a lot of talk if that happened. People in Mayo should be entitled to a better level of care in the county and not have to go to Galway so often.
“The battle for orthopaedics in Mayo was a good example of that. I recall someone waiting so long for an orthopaedic consultation in Galway that by the time they were called, they were dead, the doctor who referred them was dead and the consultant who was due to see them was dead. That’s how bad orthopaedics was.
“You could wait maybe seven or eight years. It’s hard to believe. It was absolutely crazy.
“You can use healthcare as an example right across the board. Sometimes I think people can lose track in government and being in there in that bubble, which is Leinster House.
“Often times it’s more about party dominance or not letting the opposition get one over you, or whatever and about the next election, rather than what it should be about, and that is about people and people’s needs.”

Party politics
AN Independent TD for Mayo from 2002 to 2007, Cowley feels the party political system can often be an impediment for progress in the regions.
“If you are in somebody else’s back door or backyard, and you’re competing for the same vote, it stands to reason that’s going to be adversity, there’s going to be competition there.
“There are notable examples of people working together. When I was there I tried to get the health representatives of all parties working together but political priority took over. Thankfully we are seeing it working now with Sláintecare.
“I was able to work with people from different parties on issues but it was easy for those TDs if they were from outside my constituency. The people in my constituency, and I’m not saying it about anyone in particular, but you can see the rivalry came out. They were trying to take me down a peg or two, rather than looking at the bigger picture and wear the Mayo jersey. It was more about the next election. I don’t want to be ungracious to anybody but that was my experience,” said Cowley.
He said the ‘decisiveness and leadership’ shown by the Government at the outset of the Covid-19 crisis showed what can happen.
“Politics is the art of the impossible, because so much can be done. It’s all about the will. We saw what happened with Covid. When it came down to it, people were really, really fantastic.
“The government knew what had to be done, so did the people, the people took the challenge, rose to the challenge. People are very proud of the government. And that is right.
“What I’m saying it’s an equal challenge for all the other issues but the government needs to provide the resources and I think Covid is a good example of that. How it can work if government gives people the support they need to get on with their lives and do what needs to be done. We can do it.
“What’s missing is the resolve. Covid concentrated minds, the Government knew it was the end of them, and the end of everything they knew, and the end of our economy if they didn’t act properly, and they did act properly and they acted decisively, and they knew exactly the type of leadership that was needed. That’s what’s needed in so many other things that are important to sort out,” he said.
“The silver lining with Covid is we can do things differently. And sometimes doing things differently breaks the mould of the way we’ve done it before.
“A change came with Sláintecare too. If it can happen with Sláintecare and with Covid, it can happen with everything,” he said.

Mindset
Cowley lost his seat in 2007 and ran unsuccessfully for Labour in 2011 and as an Independent in 2016. He believes a model for change is achievable with a shift in mindset.
“If things can be changed for the better by the stroke of a pen then that is a magnificent thing,” he said. “As a way forward, it’s not outside the wit of civil servants to ensure that  legislation enacted by the Oireachtas truly reflects fairness to all regions of Ireland with a level playing pitch approach and so are rural proofed to ensure balanced regional development by the Department of Community and Rural Development for instance.
“ The example of a minimum acceptable standard to be achieved no matter where you live in the state such as ensuring basic medical services locally could be applied to care of older people and job opportunities as well as an example.
“This requires the backing of whoever is in government. If people knew a certain political persuasion could ensure the above it would be the way forward and get them where they could enact such legislation. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”