A Galway man who has fought a very long battle to enable gay and bisexual men can donate blood has cautiously welcomed a signalled change in policy by Government.
The Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, announced plans recently that will enable men who have sex with men (MSM) to donate blood based on individualised risk assessment – a process that will apply to all donors similar to that used in the UK.
Tomás Heneghan from Castlegar first came to public attention in 2016 when he took a High Court case against the state seeking to lift a lifelong ban on gay men donating blood – a policy that came about during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Scientific evidence has long since shown that there is no basis for a continued veto on gay or bisexual men’s blood, and in 2017 a twelve-month gap since having sex – known as a deferral and applying to MSM only – was introduced ending the lifetime ban.
However, Minister Donnelly has said from March 2022, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) will reduce this to four months – an interim measure ahead of the full removal of restrictions on MSM.
For Mr Heneghan – who currently travels to the UK to donate blood – this was welcome news provided it wasn’t put on the long finger by IBTS, not only for MSM who want to donate blood but for confidence in the safety of blood donations overall.
“There’s always been two parts to this – on one side, personally it often excluded me from being able to donate blood in Ireland but on the flip side, there was always the potential for someone to donate unsafe blood.
“A man could have sex with a woman and neither might know if they were infected. There was nothing to stop them going the next morning and making a donation – this new system will take account of that risk across the board,” said the 30-year-old who is now based in Dublin.
When the new system is introduced – which is understood to be taking time because of a move to a more paperless approach by the IBTS – all potential donors will be asked if they have had sex with a new partner in the three months previous to donating.
If so, this will lead to a further set of questions to establish how safe it is for them to donate.
This methodology has been in use in the across the water since last year and with ongoing shortages of blood in Ireland, around 500 units have had to be imported from the UK to meet demand in the last 12 months.
“Considering that all came at a time when this system was in place in the UK, it was difficult to see why Ireland was different,” said Mr Heneghan, adding that while this will increase the number of people eligible to donate, it was unlikely to make up the current shortfall.
“I will fully acknowledge the fact that gay and bisexual men make up a relatively small proportion of the population and it may not lead to a huge boom in new repeat donors, if you get one new gay man on the system, that could be three or four donations per year,” he said.
There had been widespread political support for a change in policy in recent years, said Mr Heneghan, but he believed ongoing resistance within the blood service slowed down change.
“While the Minister for Health had the power to change the policy, they tended to defer to the blood service. Perhaps that was just because they didn’t want to get involved in the detail and preferred to leave it up to the IBTS, but I would have been critical that there wasn’t more done at a political level and that various ministers didn’t intervene,” he said.
True success will be the day he can donate here in Ireland, said Mr Heneghan – what will be likely be the 20th donation he’s made since his first, just a few days after he turned 18.
“It’ll be the day that I’m sitting with that form in front of me, and the questions that I’ve answered so many times before [about MSM] will no longer be there – that’ll be when it sinks in.
“I will be continuing to follow up to get the date when it’ll be in place, but at least we’ve been told it’ll be by the end of this year,” he said.
Social media ban for revenge porn accused
A 26-year-old man has been barred from using all social media platforms since being charged with harassing his former girlfriend by allegedly posting sexually explicit photos of her online along with links to her Snapchat account.
It is the first prosecution of its type relating to image-based abuse, more commonly referred to as ‘revenge porn’ to come before the courts in Galway.
Judge Mary Fahy imposed restrictions, prohibiting the publication of the man’s identity when he was first brought in custody before Galway District Court last October.
This week, she asked Sergeant Christy Burke, prosecuting, why had she imposed the restrictions at the time. He reminded her she had imposed the restrictions then as the case involved sexually explicit material.
Garda Paraic Moran gave evidence in October of having arrested and charged the man with harassing his former girlfriend on a date unknown between August 1, 2015 and July 10, 2019, contrary to Section 10 (1) and (6) of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.
The accused made no reply when the charge was put to him at the time.
The Director of Public Prosecutions directed the charge could only be dealt with at District Court level if the man entered a guilty plea.
Judge Fahy asked Garda Moran for an outline of the allegations made against the accused so she could decide on whether or not to deal with the case in her court should he plead guilty.
Garda Moran said the man had been in a relationship with the complainant and it was alleged that sometime after they broke up, she was contacted by a couple whom she didn’t know, inviting her to meet them for sex.
As a result of this encounter, the woman discovered intimate photographs of her were circulating on the internet.
She had sent the photos to the accused when they were together and it was alleged, Garda Moran said, that after the relationship ended the accused uploaded the photos to the internet on several occasions with links to the complainant’s Facebook Snapchat account.
Judge Fahy accepted jurisdiction in October to hear the case in her court and she made an order for prosecution statements to be sent to defence solicitor, Brian Gilmartin’s office and for the accused to come to court this week and elect to either plead guilty or not guilty to the charge.
Sgt Browne informed the court this week the statements had inadvertently not yet been sent to Mr Gilmartin but they would be now.
Judge Fahy remanded the accused on continuing bail to appear back before the court in March and elect then whether he wanted to plead guilty or not guilty.
Bail was granted in October subject to conditions sought by Gardai that he have no contact with the complainant or any witnesses, by any means to include social media; continue to reside at his rental address in the city and notify Gardai of any change of address within 48 hours; sign on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Garda HQ at Murrough, Renmore; observe a nightly curfew between 10p.m. and 6a.m.; be of good behaviour and remain of sober habits; and provide a mobile phone number to Gardai and answer his phone to them at all times.
Judge Fahy added a further condition at the time prohibiting the man from accessing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and all other social media platforms, pending completion of the case.
She awarded him free legal aid and also advised him that if he broke any of the bail conditions it was likely he would end up in custody, due to the seriousness of the charge he was facing.
Help at hand for smokers with resolve!
The HSE has launched their annual free programme to help smokers at the start of the new year to try to kick the habit as research shows that 70% of smokers want to give up for good.
With packets of cigarettes now retailing at €15 a pop, there has never been a better time to quit – even if health reasons are not a consideration.
But the impact on health should help make that decision even more urgent, according to the Irish Cancer Society.
The HSE has found that half of all smokers die from smoking-related diseases. In 2015 records show that 5,950 people died as a direct result of smoking, with an additional 100 deaths thought to be the result of exposure to second-hand smoke.
The benefits of become a non-smoker quickly become apparent. The US Surgeon General’s Office insists that after 72 hours of quitting, breathing becomes easier as the bronchial tubes relax and energy levels increase.
After a fortnight circulation improves, making walking and exercise easier. After three to nine months: coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing are reduced dramatically. After five years the risk of heart attack falls to that of a non-smoker while after a decade the risk of lung cancer falls to about half that of a smoker.
“The first thing is to realise that quitting smoking is a process, and it is important to understand where you fit in the process or ‘cycle’ of change,” said a spokesperson for the Irish Cancer Society.
“You need to plan when and how you’re going to quit. If you can get through the first 30 days without cigarettes, you’ll have gone a long way towards kicking the habit.”
The Quit Smoking West Service offers six free sessions with a HSE Stop Smoking Advisor. This therapist will explore habits and any concerns you have about stopping smoking. They will assess your level of smoking addiction, provide support to deal with challenges and discuss stop smoking medications.
“We know that quitting can be extremely difficult. But by working with us, we will support you to develop a plan to help you to cope with withdrawal symptoms and cravings, and provide you with motivational tips to help keep you on track,” a spokesperson for the service explained.
Call Quit Smoking West on (091) 737262 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for the free, confidential support and advice.
Gort set for transformation under regeneration plans
The revitalisation of the town of Gort received another major shot in the arm last week when it was one of 27 landmark projects to share in the latest €21.5 million Rural Regeneration Development Fund.
The Gort Inse Guaire project received €798,000 towards the re-design of the Market Square and town centre streets, as well as reinvigorating the Canon Quinn Park greenspace in the town centre.
The Gorgeous Gort Forum – the representative body for all local community groups, clubs and organisations which drove this application – welcomed ‘the wonderful news’.
“We thank the Minister for approving funding for our town, and all the team in Galway County Council who we supported in developing and submitting this application and the local representatives who supported this application.
“We also thank the over 40 organisations, clubs and groups in our community, who we represent, that provided invaluable letters of support’, said Gorgeous Gort Forum chairperson Justin McDermott.
The Forum supported Galway County Council in the development and submission of this application. This included organising letters of support from over 40 various clubs, organisations, and groups in Gort which they represent.
The group also facilitated meetings between Galway County Council and key community stakeholders, and worked with local elected representatives, including Minister Anne Rabbitte, Sean Canny TD, Ciaran Cannon TD and local councillors including Joe Byrne, PJ Murphy, and Geraldine Donoghue, to lobby the minister on behalf of the community.
The news was warmly welcomed from all fronts, with local TD Ciaran Cannon describing it as an ambitious investment in Gort, building on a very strong community spirit in the town.
And his fellow Galway East TD Sean Canney particularly welcomed the work on Canon Quinn Park, which he described as ‘an underutilised yet vital greenspace within the centre of the town’.
“In order to capitalise on this invaluable resource, the park requires diversification and redesign to improve usages, discourage anti-social behaviour and provide a green lung for the town centre,” he said.
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