Liam Farrell: It's time for doctors to engage in politics

You probably didn't notice, but we've just had yet another election in Northern Ireland. We used to be headline news all across the world, but now we are just an annoying little blip, a petulant squabble among neighbours, and nobody cares about us anymore; there are bigger things happening.

The two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein intensely dislike each other (I hate the word ‘hate') and are almost defined by their mutual antagonism, but the real targets of their campaigns were their more moderate challengers.

It’s always convenient to have a bogeyman under the bed and, as we learned from Brexit and Trump, when you're selling fear you can’t just sell fear, you have to go out and make people scared. Selling fear also can relegate issues like LGBT equality and women’s rights into the background, issues where Northern Ireland remains stalwartly and embarrassingly backward.

In the midst of this campaign, the permanent secretary of the Department of Health sent out an email saying said he was concerned about the 'overtly political tweets from colleagues across the service'.

I understand his reasons; in Northern Ireland the conflict is not just about how to run the country but about which country we belong to, and the enmity is ancient and atavistic as the peat.

But silence can be eloquent, expressing apathy or acquiescence, and doctors have a vocational duty to be heard and to take a political stance. Former BMJ editor Richard Smith observed that the main contribution of the NHS to the nation’s health was in providing employment, and the main arbiter of population health is not medical care but the social determinants of health; housing, employment, education, sanitation, sufficient food, a clean environment and, most of all, eradicating poverty. As Virchow said: 'Doctors are the natural attorneys of the poor.'

There are things worth protecting and defending, and the world can be more than a jungle where the strong thrive and the weak are devoured.

Our obligations go beyond merely protecting the the NHS; we have more global responsibilities, to support science, to encourage the arts, to advocate for a meaningful response to climate change, to affirm that refugees and immigrants are people just like us.

I admit we may not have any particular expertise in many of these areas, but as Michael Gove said: 'The British people are tired of listening to experts.'

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell

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