The Roscommon Hospital Action Committee and Irish Rail have criticised the actions of a hospital protester who scaled the White Bridge in Athlone and disrupted train services from the town to Galway and Westport for several hours yesterday (Tuesday).
The incident arose at around 6.45am when gardai were alerted by Irish Rail that a local man had positioned himself on the White Bridge, close to the railway line, as part of a peaceful protest against the downgrading of Roscommon County Hospital.
He hung a huge banner criticising the Government across the bridge to highlight the cuts to hospitals nationwide.
Speaking on national radio yesterday, the local man Gerry Geraghty (29) defended his actions, stressing that the only way to save services in our hospitals was to stand up and be counted. "Ballinasloe is in danger, Mullingar is in danger, this is crazy. Shutting down hospitals is crazy, I for one am not going to sit back."
He accepted that after scaling the bridge at 6.30am and only agreeing to come down at 9.40am, he had disrupted rail passengers, but he said it was about publicising the protest march to the Dáil tomorrow.
"It had to be done, to get the message across.. I want people to tell the Government you can do what you want but don't mess with our lives... For the love of God get on the streets tomorrow and tell them enough is enough," he said in an appeal on radio, denying that he was in any danger on the bridge at any stage. "I was fully safe, I've worked with steel all my life."
However, his action provoked strong criticism from Irish Rail and the Roscommon Hospital Committee.
"It's against our ethos we are about saving lives not endangering lives. It is totally categorically had nothing to do us," HAC Chairman, John McDermott told the Westmeath Independent yesterday morning (Tuesday).
"We had no knowledge of any action, we wouldn't approve it and don't approve of it," he stressed although he admitted that he understands that they is a lot of anger out there in relation to the issue.
"We are delighted though that he is down safe. While I can appreciate the anger I couldn't condone what was done," he continued, stressing that the group will march on the Dail this evening (Wednesday) prior to a debate on hospital services and they plan to protest at bridges across the Shannon, however he stressed they would be on the footpaths.
Mr McDermott they want to focus on the hospital issue and the fact that people are going to die on the roads to Galway if the services leave Roscommon, pointing out that just last weekend there was no ambulance available to respond to an accident close to Roscommon town where five people were injured.
It took half an hour for one vehicle to get to the scene and others had to be drafted in from as far away as Loughrea.
Meanwhile, Barry Kenny of Irish Rail estimated that up to 500 people were disrupted by the bridge protest yesterday (Tuesday) forcing the company to put bus transfers in place between Athlone and Roscommon, on the Westport line and from Athlone to Ballinasloe, along the Galway line. There were delays for several hours as a result until the services resumed fully before noon.
"It was a dangerous and foolish thing to do," he commented, adding that they have had problems in the past with young people scaling the bridge but to have an adult do it is worse again.
"Not withstanding the hospital issue, he probably delayed people on the train who had hospital appointments," Mr Kenny complained, apologising to the public for the resulting delays and inconvenience caused.
"Protesting about a public service by disrupting another one is something we're not enamoured with," he concluded, thanking the gardai for their help. It's thought specialist negotiators were drafted in to talk to Mr Geraghty during the incident.
Over two and half hours after scaling the structure, local gardai said the protester voluntarily came to the garda station after he climbed down from the bridge.
They confirmed he had not been charged in relation to the incident but a file will be prepared for the DPP.