Leona O'Neill: The north's struggling families don't have the luxury of waiting for a united Ireland - they need representation now

It's a election time again, and this time we get to vote for representation at Westminster. After three years of no Stormont government in an era of Tory-imposed austerity measures, Leona O'Neill feels this a crucial vote for the north

The north has endured three years of a shuttered Stormont and only 'leave' representation at Westminster. Picture Mal McCann

THIS time next week we could be looking at an entirely new political landscape. Or indeed, this being Northern Ireland, it is entirely plausible that we could be looking at more of the same. A thought that is utterly depressing.

People have billed this election as 'one of a lifetime' and it certainly feels like one. The landscape, I feel, has changed. So many different issues have shone a light on our political problems here, none more than what has been gifted to us by Westminster; Brexit, welfare reforms, health and education woes.

This time around, I feel that people have been directly impacted the land over by happenings – and, indeed, the lack of happenings – at Westminster. We have had the odd experience of voting largely to remain in the European Union, but having only 'leave' politicians in there giving us a voice from Northern Ireland.

A large section of the community voted in seven Sinn Fein MPs, who – as is completely their right – choose not to take their seats in one of the most critical eras of our modern history.

They aren't there for discussions on welfare reform, or hospital waiting lists, or how Brexit will impact on Northern Ireland business, or what the reality is of a hard border, or school budgets or any of the important stuff that impacts on you and me and our kids every single day.

Instead, they say they work where it matters; Brussels, which we might be getting cut off from pretty soon, Dublin, which has precious little influence here, and America, which is... well, in America.

The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or despise it, Westminster is the place where decisions are made about life here in Northern Ireland. It's where budgets are created, boosted and cut. It's where decisions are made about our schools, about the NHS, about the benefits our most vulnerable people need to survive, about everything that we need to function as a society. Cutting ourselves off from that process and not having the courage and strength to fight it from the inside out is just handing power to those who care little about us to do whatever the hell they like.

Two weeks ago, I got a letter home in my daughter's school bag from her primary school. It was from her principal and a group of principals in Derry asking parents to fight back on their behalf. It was basically pleading for parents to demand change, reminding them once again of the dire, desperate situation that all the schools are in and that we need our politicians to work in the places they were democratically elected to, to make things better.

Last week, someone I love was diagnosed with a serious illness. In a whirlwind of hospital visits and consultations we were told that some of their appointments had to be postponed and we would have to wait an agonisingly long time to hear life changing news because of the health workers strike, something that can't be resolved properly until a Health Minister makes a call. So, life hangs in the balance for us – and, I'm certain, countless other people here – because of our political vacuum.

That's us, one family in this place, whose life, children's lives and loved one's lives have been impacted severely and negatively by the lack of government here and people not taking their elected seats in London.

And people will tell you things will be better in a united Ireland. Perhaps they will, but tell that to the people it impacts now, today. Those heading to the food banks today to feed their kids, those who are dependent today on the healthcare system to survive, children who are in classrooms today which are overcrowded. Families who are living in extreme poverty. Kids who can't access special education needs provision because schools can't afford them anymore. They haven't the luxury of waiting for a united Ireland. They need their needs addressed now, today.

Our politicians are playing us for fools. There hasn't been a government for three years. Half of our community doesn't have representation in Westminster. Our schools and hospitals are buckling under the strain, people are dying on waiting lists and we do nothing. Yet we will gladly take to the streets if someone threatens our 'culture'.

It's a messed-up place, Northern Ireland. I just hope that people will wake up and be willing to make a change for the better, for you, for me, for our children, who are suffering now.

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