A section of the attendance at Monday night's meeting in Dorrian's Imperial Hotel in Ballyshannon
A public meeting on Monday night in Ballyshannon called in response to fears that a multi-million euro project at the Sheil Hospital might be delayed or deferred, welcomed as "very positive" a statement from the HSE confirming that the project would go ahead in September.
Despite the "good news" it was agreed that until the first sod was turned a need for vigilance by all was required.
The meeting was called by independent local election candidate Billy Grimes following fears that the €19 million project could be in jeopardy as part of the fallout from the overrun of the National Children’s Hospital.
At the start of the meeting chairman Shane Toolan told an attendance of almost 60 people, among them two TDs, sitting councillors and many candidates who have declared their intention to run on May 24, that a statement issued by the HSE now confirmed that the Sheil Hospital project would in fact start in September.
Quoting the statement, the chairman said John Hayes, Chief Officer for Community Healthcare Organisation Area 1, which covers Community Services in Donegal, Sligo/Leitrim and Cavan/Monaghan confirmed that the HSE are proceeding with the upgrading/refurbishment of all Community Hospitals in Donegal.
Mr Hayes said: “The HSE have an agreed time frame to complete the upgrading/refurbishment work with HIQA and we are proceeding on this basis.”
Mr Toolan said the statement from the HSE was “good news” and most of those who later spoke agreed that the news was positive, commenting that they accepted Mr Haye’s word but most also said that they should continue to keep a close eye on the progress of the project.
Welcoming the confirmation from Mr Hayes, Mr Grimes said there had been conflicting reports but they now had been given a definitive start time in September. He said had they not asked questions, they would not get answers and he felt it was better to be “proactive”.
Michael McMahon, a Sinn Féin candidate in the May elections, said the statement from the HSE covered what they needed to hear. He said he had also been given an assurance from education minister, Joe McHugh, that the Sheil project would go ahead.
Valerie McNulty, an independent candidate in May, said she was not going to “sugar coat anything”. She said she was confused as to why they were having a meeting as she had information from the “HSE and the Department” for almost a week stating that the HSE was progressing the development of the Sheil Hospital in conjunction with the Sheil Trust.
She said she had been told the tendering process is currently underway and the contract is scheduled to be finalised in the next few months. The HSE is aware that the government is currently reviewing the capital project with a view to finalising the overall programme in February 2019.
“To me that project is going ahead, so I am actually a bit confused why then are we here tonight, but I am happy to be here to discuss it.”
Diarmaid Doherty, an independent election candidate said he welcomed the news that confirms the project is going ahead. "The main focus now is that we leave here with a plan and a clear focus going forward," he said.
Cyril Brennan, People Before Profit, said he welcomed the news, but he remains sceptical. If the project goes over a 22 or 23 million euro threshold, should it exceed the agreed €19 million set aside, he said he had concerns where that extra money would come from. He added: “We all know how capable the HSE are at managing their budgets, hence my concerns.”
Philip McGlynn, a Fianna Fáil candidate in the elections, said he welcomed the fact that so many people had come to the meeting to show their interest and concern for Ballyshannon. He said he complimented John Hayes and his team for all the work done and “we should take him at his word and I look forward to seeing the sod turned in September.”
Cllr Noel Jordan, Sinn Féin, said there were suggestions that some projects would be shelved or put on hold, so it was “timely” that Mr Hayes had issued the statement on Monday afternoon. He said he welcomed the confirmation but like many others, he would welcome the day the sod turning happens.
Cllr Niamh Kennedy, independent, said they had a “good news story” from the meeting, but she said it was good to see that so many people had their finger on the pulse in relation to the issue and it was important that they continued to be vigilant as the project progressed.
Cllr Seamus Maguire, independent, said he also welcomed the news and he complimented the local community in Ballyshannon and Bundoran who clearly had “put the pressure on” to clarify the issue and he advised them to continue to do so. He said that from his own experience in the teaching profession where they also had a project close to tender, he took the view that “you cannot be sure almost until the shovel is in the ground” so it was important people continued to watch developments closely.
A contributor from the floor said she agreed with Cllr Maguire and in her view, until the project was “half way up” she would advise that “we keep our eye on the ball”.
Laurence McManus, Pettigo, asked if everyone at the meeting believed “this is happening”. The chairman replied: “You can take your own opinion out of what is written down, that is entirely up to you, you can only only go on the word of what people say.” Mr McManus: “And if it don’t happen”. Chairman: “If it doesn’t happen I’m sure we will all be back in this room quoting the promises that have been made.” Mr McManus replied: “And did you ever get promises before in Ireland?” Laughter followed this comment with some people applauding.
Deputy Marc MacSharry, Fianna Fáil, said he had spoken to Frank Morrison, head of the HSE’s Social Care section, who had told him that the project was very much on its way. He said he would take John Haye’s at his word: “If John had been managing the ‘St James's hole in the ground’ I don't think it would be in the trouble that it is in.”
He added that in addition to the undertaking he got from Mr Morrison and the statement issued by Mr Hayes, he had also submitted three parliamentary questions and when he received replies to these, expected later this week, he would have very specific information as to the dates for the Sheil work to start and a status report as to where the tender process is. He said he would have those replies within 48 hours.
“If it is up to John Hayes and Frank Morrison, I have no doubt it will proceed on time and it will be built which is a very positive story for all of us here.
"Unfortunately budgets are given out annually, not by John, so it is something from a political perspective, all of us, from all parties and none, need to keep a very close eye on to make sure that ‘next week’s crisis’ doesn’t cause a delay or the crisis one the week after that, because there are always going to be issues that come in from the side, that potentially could have implications for many projects here in the north west, so we have to keep a very close watching brief on it.
"From a personal perspective and in fairness to my colleagues from other political parties in the Dáil, I don’t doubt their commitment to it either.
“I know of all the Donegal projects, and there are several, from Carndonagh and other areas such as Moville, I know from their perspective the Sheil is their absolute priority in the context of Donegal,” he said, adding: “We will all be on our toes to ensure nothing puts the Sheil project ‘off the rails’. We will all fight our corner to ensure that it is not just projects in proximity to senior ministers that proceed.”
In response to a question from Deirdre Kennedy as to when they would have the detailed information they needed to allow them rest assured the project was progressing as planned, the chairman said that responses expected to questions from Deputy MacSharry and Mr Grimes would reveal much of the project time line over the next number of months.
A contributor asked why the statement from John Hayes was issued “at the eleventh hour”. Diarmaid Doherty said he believed the statement was issued because "pressure" had been put on by those who asked the questions in the first place last week.
Pauric Kennedy, Mayor of Donegal town, said it was his view that the people in Ballyshannon were lucky to have John Hayes in their corner. “It is great to see so many people showing their concern here tonight, but I have no doubt that John Hayes and his team will deliver on this project.”
The meeting, which lasted over an hour concluded with all in agreement that the confirmation that the project would go ahead was to be welcomed, but there was agreement also that the pressure exerted should continue and that a close eye must be kept on how the Sheil Hospital project progresses.