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Why GPs make the perfect politicians

Dr Kieran Deeny made political history when he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as an independent on a single-issue health ticket ­ here he talks about his challenging life and why more GPs should enter politics

Dr Kieran Deeny made political history when he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as an independent on a single-issue health ticket ­ here he talks about his challenging life and why more GPs should enter politics

In the run-up to the 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly elections I was dismissed as a no-hoper with questionable sanity by opponents and the media. But on election night they were forced to eat their words. Not only had I been elected to the Government as the first single-issue candidate since the formation of Northern Ireland but I had topped the poll and was straight in on first count.

Politics was never my first calling. During medical training at University College Dublin in the 1970s I quickly realised I wanted to be a GP as I felt at home and liked talking to the man/woman on the street.

I was born and reared in Downpatrick, Co. Down, on the east coast but left during the height of the 'Troubles' in 1973 when deaths from the conflict were averaging 10 per week. Marriage ­ almost 20 years ago ­ lured me back to my home county. Our practice in Carrickmore is rural with poor services overall ­ in infrastructure and now, more recently, in health.

This is what spurred me to fight for decent and modern health services for our community and ultimately led to my involvement in politics.Tyrone is the largest of the six counties of Northern Ireland and one of the largest of the 32 counties in all of Ireland. Yet it was decided that both our county's acute hospitals should be closed ­ leaving my family and patients (almost 8,000) one-and-a-half hours away from A&E and lifesaving services.

As a result of this appalling injustice, and the fact I had been writing about our health care deficiencies for years in the local press, I was asked to stand for the Assembly. I have a growing campaign team which is representative of all of our communities here, including those from outside the two main traditions of Unionist/Protestant and Nationalist/Catholic, such as members of the Bahai faith.

Since my election in November 2003 I have been a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Northern Ireland. Though the health issue I was elected on remains very much active (30,000 turned out on Omagh's main street to campaign in November) and I am busy politically, I still have yet to spend one day in a functioning Assembly as it, scandalously, remains in suspension.

I feel strongly that there are not enough doctors in politics and very few compared with the number of politicians with a legal or teaching background.

Doctors and, in particular, GPs, are particularly well-qualified for politics as we have a lot of experience being involved in all social issues and problems affecting the lives of our people ­ and politics is, or should be, primarily about people. We are quick and competent decision-makers and we have a track record of carrying things through.

I would particularly like to see other doctors coming forward for election as Independents where, like myself, as true Independents for their constituency, they are not controlled by political parties or party whips but can focus completely on the needs of their people. It does take courage to go it alone in politics but it can be, and has been, done.

Remember that in consistent surveys, people continually and emphatically state they would trust their GPs more than their politicians and we win this contest hands down on each and every occasion.

To be able to successfully combine life as a GP and a politician you need support and understanding of friends, partners and patients ­ which I have. And you need to be able to achieve a balance between two stressful jobs, family and social life.

I work six days per week ­ three-and-a-half days in my practice and two-and-a-half, including Saturday, in my political work. Sunday and two or three nights are family time and I like to spend two hours on two mornings every week in the gym. There are pitfalls to mixing politics and practice as people at times mix up my two jobs. Others regrettably feel you are their servant 24 hours of every day.

I have had patients of other practices call into my constituency office seeking a second GP/medical opinion, which is, of course, refused. The same applies in our GP surgery. Any political calls that come in while I am working as a GP are identified by our reception staff and redirected to my political office.However, in spite of these hiccups I find my political life has helped my work as a GP. I am open to learning every day of my life and I can now understand better the social concerns of people.

As they say, 'a change is as good as a rest', and I find one-and-a-half days away from the practice actually gives me more energy and enthusiasm when I return for surgeries.

Kieran Deeny is MLA Independent (West Tyrone) and chair of Omagh and District GP Association

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