Anne Hailes: We can't allow free public transport for older people to be scrapped – it's a vital lifeline for so many

Anne Hailes

Anne Hailes

Anne is Northern Ireland's first lady of journalism, having worked in the media since she joined Ulster Television when she was 17. Her columns have been entertaining and informing Irish News readers for 25 years.

Free public transport for the over-60s is a vital lifeline for many
Free public transport for the over-60s is a vital lifeline for many

COME rain or shine, Rita Murray is there campaigning for the rights of older people.

"I'm 83 next month but in my head I'm still 18, a recycled teenager," she says – and it shows, she's always on the move, on committees and forums all over Belfast and beyond, specifically the G6. This might represent a major chord in music or the six largest European Union members but for Rita and her colleagues this represents Six Greater Belfast Senior Forums lobbying on behalf of older people.

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When she was 18 Rita travelled to New York to take up a job with a family.

"I left my mum and we were both crying. An aunt took me to the train for Dublin's Connolly Street Station. It was all too much for me at my age," she remembers.

"However, two nuns took pity on me and with their help I made it to America and suddenly my black and white life burst into Technicolor."

She always had a passion for film, having worked as an usherette in the Majestic cinema at 14, so she was in the right place at the right time and her memory box is full of colour and excitement, letters and photos and all the glamour of Broadway.

"I met Debbie Reynolds and that was thrilling, she was lovely and gave me her autograph. So did Johnny Mathis at the Copacabana. I think it's important to treasure memories to have when you get older, I did write a diary at one time, I'm sorry I didn't keep it up."

I remind her that according to another movie star, Tallulah Bankhead, only a good girl keeps a diary – a bad girl hasn't time...

But there's no badness in Rita Murray; quite the opposite, as she's dedicated to helping others. When she came home from America she worked in the sterilising department in the Royal Victoria Hospital making sure surgeons had the correct sterile implements at hand and comforting patients.

"I was there for all sorts of operations, the only thing I didn't get to see was a baby being born," she recalls.

I recall filming a birth with Jim Dornan, an obstetrician who delivered thousands of babies in his day. We had planned a natural birth but he phoned to say the lady had gone ahead of our date and her baby was already born but would we be interested in a caesarean delivery. What a privilege to be with Mary Logan at the arrival of David and witness the miracle of this tiny perfect baby being lifted out into the world.

And as far as Rita is concerned that world should be as friendly as possible and campaigning for recognition of older people is important, not only for the over 60s but also laying the groundwork for children who grow up into adulthood and beyond.


I met Rita at the recent Age Friendly Belfast convention in the City Hall, designed to alert people and families as to what's on offer, from over-50s men-only health classes to cyber safety sessions, a training course which covers scams, fraud and other ways of protecting yourself online.

Tea dances, bus and walking tours, even Tai Chi is on offer – there seems to be no limit.

At the Age Friendly Convention, Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy said the organisation was offering guidance to the council on how to "make Belfast a place where older people can live life to the full"
At the Age Friendly Convention, Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy said the organisation was offering guidance to the council on how to "make Belfast a place where older people can live life to the full"

As chair of West Belfast Forum, Rita's message to convention delegates concerned 'smart passes' because there is a threat to free transport for the 60-plus age group.

The Department for Infrastructure asked for contributions about the future arrangements but Rita says the form would take a Philadelphia lawyer to navigate and since then, at least when we were talking, there has been no acknowledgement or response from the department.

Having free transport is the life blood for many who would otherwise be totally isolated; with a bus pass they can travel to meet friends, keep appointments for health reasons, shop, enjoy life in general, so these bus passes are essential although the cost to the department is being used as a deterrent.

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That will not deter the G6 Forum – nothing daunts them but it's hard going at times. Their achievements are many and varied, from mental health issues and 'heat or eat' to 'Make The Call' and countering isolation.

Look up 'Age Friendly Belfast' and all the services on offer are there ready to be taken advantage off and enjoyed. The City Council is working towards "a city where older people live life to the full" but they also want citizens to get in touch, air their grievances and find out where they can get help, thanks to people like Rita Murray.