By Tanya Fowles, Local Democracy Reporter
A row over comments made during a meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council which ultimately saw three members excluded from speaking - led one to ask: "Is this a democracy or a dictatorship?"
Another member distanced herself from the controversial exclusion, insisting she would have no part in silencing freedom of speech.
The issue related to the ongoing situation at Maple Healthcare GP Surgery in Lisnaskea, the operators of which are handing back their contract to the Department of Health due to "excessive stresses and intolerable pressures".
Correspondence from Peter May, Departmental Permanent Secretary, discussed at the Policy and Resources Committee meeting, set out two potential contract options to replace Maple Healthcare - General Medical Services (GMS), and an Alternative Provider for Medical Services (APMS).
Only a GP can hold a GMS contract, while anyone can hold an APMS contract, providing they are able to source GP input for service delivery.
Mr. May said the vast majority of GP practices hold GMS contracts, although there are two APMS contracts in Northern Ireland - one of which is held by the Western Trust.
While members sought assurances an APMS provider would not be an option, Mr. May said the Department "will consider all applicants, following due process, for provision of services to the patients of Maple Healthcare".
Councillor Donal O'Cofaigh, CCLA, claimed this showed an existing mechanism to outsource GP services which "appears to be purpose-built to facilitate privatisation, to deliver services which have collapsed through the public sector".
He continued: "GP services are not being properly funded. As a result, we have the worst GP crisis anywhere in the UK."
Independent Councillor Eamon Keenan, who previously raised this issue, stated: "I was basically called a liar and accused of scaremongering. It now seems my concerns were neither unfounded nor false.
"Nothing has improved much while we await the new contractors, and we haven't received any explanation for the deadline."
However, Ulster Unionist Councillor Victor Warrington felt: "There's nothing in this correspondence that we didn't already know. It would certainly be good if we could move forward."
Councillor Josephine Deehan, Independent, said: "I'm not really surprised we haven't had feedback around recruiting a new contract holder for Maple Healthcare. This is a re enactment of the Dromore and Trillick Surgery crisis, where the Western Trust became the contract holder.
"A lot of resources have gone into that, including the recruitment of locum GPs at very attractive remuneration, making it very difficult for ordinary practices to get cover.
"This is the outworking of decades of underinvestment … I have great concerns over Maple Healthcare."
Independent Councillor Emmet McAleer described the response as: "A really worrying development."
Sinn Fein's Councillor Sheamus Greene contended some members "are trying to make politics out of this, and that's a disgrace".
Before he could continue, some members cut in, leading the committee Chair, Councillor Errol Thompson, to warn he would have those involved silenced as interruptions would not be tolerated.
Resuming, Councillor Greene pointed to "mistruths and half-truths with suggestions patients would have to pay to see a GP, which was categorically confirmed not to be the case".
Continuing, he said: "A member claimed I hadn't supported the [previous] letter [to the Department], which was a complete lie."
Councillor Keenan, however, said: "You opposed it, and if you've changed your mind, it's because your party told you to."
The Chair warned Councillor Kennan for speaking out, to which Councillor Greene remarked:
"That's the type of bad-mannered, ill-informed people scaremongering. If councillors want to tell vulnerable, sick and disabled people they will have to pay for GP services, I'm going to call them out on it. GP services are not going to be charged for."
When Councillor Keenan claimed lies were being told, the Chair issued a second warning of exclusion.
In response, Councillor Keenan branded this "censorship", while Councillor McAleer enquired: "Is this a democracy or a dictatorship?"
He too received a warning, quickly followed by Councillor O'Cofaigh, who requested legal opinion.
However, the Chair refused, and proceeded to silence all three members.
Before being shut out, Councillor McAleer managed to protest: "You can't make a decision to silence elected representatives. That's not democracy."
Calm was restored, and while matters moved on, Independent Councillor Bernice Swift stressed: "I wish to be recorded as disagreeing with that [exclusion] ruling.
"I don't want it heard or understood that I ignored such a lack of freedom of speech.
"I will not sit idly by and think it okay that people are silenced."
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