Stormont vacuum 'impacting child heart services'
The political impasse at Stormont could mean Belfast becomes the poor relation in an all-Ireland health service, a children's charity has warned.
The Children's Heartbeat Trust said it was vital that the Royal Hospital for Sick Children continued to play a key role in the cross-border service.
It provides pre- and post-operative care for children with congenital heart disease in Northern Ireland.
But they could suffer as the political vacuum continues, the charity warned.
The Northern Ireland children's commissioner, who advises on and monitors government policy for young people, said "strong political leadership" was required to make the service work.
"During the Brexit negotiations the needs of these children and young people may be lost," said Koulla Yiasouma.
"We need a strong voice from Northern Ireland that make sure whatever challenges these families face, particularly on the border as they are travelling either side, are resolved quickly in the negotiations."
In 2015, it was decided there should be a single congenital heart disease network on the island of Ireland, which would be based in Dublin.
But after a campaign by the Children's Heartbeat Trust, backed by hundreds of parents, it was also agreed that children in Northern Ireland would continue to receive care in Belfast.
Sarah Quinlan, the charity's chief executive, said the lack of an executive means politicians are not fighting the corner of children with the disease.
"The all-island congenital heart disease network is really the first of its type, so in order to ensure that we are able to meet the challenges that will come as the network develops we need strong political leadership and that means a fully-functional executive," said Ms Quinlan.
"We would fear that Belfast will become the poor cousin and we need to ensure there is investment in developing a paediatric heart service here."
The new children's heart centre is based at Our Lady's Hospital in Dublin and Belfast's Clarke Clinic provides pre- and post-operative care.
In 2013, a leading international surgeon who advised on the future of children's heart surgery in Northern Ireland and said there was a real willingness to make an all-island solution work.
Dr John Mayer, who is based in Boston, was asked by the Department of Health to review existing services.
He looked at those in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and concluded that a united service was the better option.
While no deadlines have been missed as yet, every stage in developing the network is critical, according to Ms Quinlan.
"The plans continue to be rolled out but it is crucial that Belfast plays a pivotal role and has an equal part in this partnership," she added.
'Foundation of care'
In the meantime, children from Northern Ireland continue to travel to England for life-saving surgery.
Wendy Carson has recently returned to Belfast after her daughter Thea, who is now eight months old, received open heart surgery at the Evelina Children's Hospital in London.
"My husband and I were in London for eight days," said Mrs Carson.
"It's hard being away from the other children and it is expensive.
"But Thea received the best of care it was just good to get back home and into the Clarke Clinic again for her post-operative care."
Christine McCaughey's nine-year-old son Blake has also just returned from having open heart surgery in London.
"From Blake's been no age the Clarke Clinic has been the foundation of his heart care," she said.
"Without it we are nothing; without it he wouldn't be here."
According to the Health and Social Care Board, all paediatric congenital heart surgery will be performed in Dublin by 2018.
That will mean no child from Northern Ireland will have to travel to England for their operation.