Health crisis: Parties say they are willing to restore Stormont to fix problems

All five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties have now said they are willing to restore devolved government to try and resolve the crisis in the health service.

By Niall Deeney
Friday, 20th December 2019, 7:04 am
Leaders of Northern Ireland’s main parties at the health summit with Julian Smith at Stormont yesterday
Leaders of Northern Ireland’s main parties at the health summit with Julian Smith at Stormont yesterday

But Sinn Fein has stressed that any restored Executive “must be credible and sustainable”.

This comes following a ‘health summit’ at Stormont involving the leaders of all five main parties and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith.

The News Letter has asked all five parties – the DUP, UUP, Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein – a series of questions about the steps each one is prepared to take to deal with the crisis in light of ongoing industrial action and patients dying on spiralling waiting lists.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and UUP leader Steve Aiken both say they support the immediate restoration of the Assembly.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said the Executive could be restored “tomorrow”if other parties could agree.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP, however, declined to respond directly to any of the specific questions from the News Letter and replied instead with a prepared statement.

The SDLP statement, issued on behalf of its health spokesperson Mark H Durkan, said the party would “much prefer that we were in a power sharing and inclusive Executive” taking decisions on health.

The questions asked of each party and their responses are as follows:

QUESTION 1) If it is shown that patients are dying due to the ongoing crisis in the Northern Ireland health service, is your party willing to restore the Executive at Stormont in order to deal with the crisis?

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “The DUP is ready and willing to restore the Assembly immediately to take decisions on vital issues, including our health service. No issue supersedes healthcare in terms of its importance and the scale of impact it has on every single person in our society. Agreement can be found on the other outstanding issues within a fixed timeframe. We simply cannot wait for other important, but less pressing issues, to be resolved before we act to help patients and our hardworking healthcare staff.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken said: “Even before our health workers started taking their industrial action, the health service was already in serious crisis. My party will do whatever it takes to deal with the crisis, and that would include supporting the immediate restoration of the Executive. There is no more important or imperative issue facing Northern Ireland right now.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “Alliance has grown increasingly frustrated at the lack of a devolved government and the lack of any real effort on behalf of the largest two parties and governments to help restore it. We have put potential solutions on the table, including our Next Steps Forward document and Irish language proposals. However, unfortunately the system means the DUP and Sinn Fein need to agree to go into an Executive together before one can be formed, and so far they have both refused to do so.”

Sinn Fein and the SDLP did not reply directly to the questions posed by the News Letter. Instead, both parties chose to issue a statement. Both statements can be viewed in full below.

QUESTION 2) Is your party willing to consider doing restoring the Executive at Stormont on a temporary or limited basis in the absence of a sustainable, long term agreement with other parties in the immediate term, in order to deal with the crisis?

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “The public are absolutely clear in their demand that parties should be back at Stormont working together to resolve these issues. The DUP is ready and willing to work with others and we hope that all parties will agree likewise.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken said: “With so many patients being forced to wait for so long, a growing number have been coming to real harm. For some, intervention will have come too late and sadly lives have been lost. It was, and still is, a human tragedy of epic proportion. We would consider whatever action is necessary to try to resolve the crisis, including even the appointment of a minister on a temporary basis. However, whilst the issues facing Northern Ireland do require immediate attention, some of the wider more structural problems will only be addressed over a longer-period. Our health service urgently needs that longer-term direction.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “The Executive could be restored tomorrow if the DUP and Sinn Fein lived up to their responsibilities, which would allow ministers to be put in place and crises such as the ongoing one in the health service, to dealt with. However, there are no quick fixes: health requires sustained investment and reform: only a commitment to sustainable, stable government has any prospect of resolving the health challenges.”

Sinn Fein and the SDLP did not reply directly to the questions posed by the News Letter. Instead, both parties chose to issue a statement. Both statements can be viewed in full below.

QUESTION 3) If it is shown that patients are dying due to the ongoing crisis in the Northern Ireland health service, is your party willing to support the introduction of direct rule to deal with the crisis?

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “The health service needs direction and decisions taken. That’s why we have already urged the government to introduce legislation to allow decisions to be made. We are not precious about what it is called whether that is direct rule or any other label. Decisions will be best made through a local Executive and Assembly working together. We will explore all options, but our clear choice is to step forward and deal with these issues rather than subcontract difficult issues to Westminster.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken said: “For three years now we have waited for the restoration of our institutions. During that time, and especially at the periods when the return of devolution looked like wholly improbable, my party was one of the loudest advocates for the introduction of direct rule. We can wait no longer. That is why in the Ulster Unionist manifesto for the election we made it clear that the cross-party talks must be the last chance. If there is no deal we must move immediately to direct rule.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “There is no doubt the health service is in crisis and urgent action is needed. It is our preference an Executive be restored to take that action: however, we have been clear that if parties continue to refuse to do so, an alternative form of governing Northern Ireland consistent with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement be put in place. The current drift is unsustainable. Further, whilst health is the current focus, it is not just health facing crisis: education, infrastructure and justice all face major challenges. We need decisions taken collectively across all departments not just in health.”

Sinn Fein and the SDLP did not reply directly to the questions posed by the News Letter. Instead, both parties chose to issue a statement. Both statements can be viewed in full below.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: “There is no doubt the health service is in crisis as a result of the punishing Tory austerity agenda.

“Sinn Fein wants to see the Executive and political institutions in place to deal with the health crisis and all other issues but an Executive must be credible and sustainable and that is what we are working to secure.

“We have made it clear to the British government that an additional funding package is required to address the problems in the health service.

“It is not acceptable for Julian Smith or civil servants to use workers’ legitimate demands for pay parity as a political football in the current talks.

“We will continue to challenge the secretary of state and the British government to provide such funding.”

SDLP health spokesperson Mark H Durkan said: “It is nothing short of a disgrace that nurses and other health workers are being blamed for going on strike. The SDLP supports the last resort strike action and recognises that trade unions have been raising concerns about safe staffing levels for years.

“The SDLP want to be clear that we support pay parity for health workers in the North. While we would much prefer that we were in a power-sharing and inclusive Executive taking these, and many other key decisions ourselves, I know it is unacceptable that health workers are left to wait due to the political impasse. It is also unacceptable for these workers to be used as bargaining chips and political leverage in the talks period.

“We have contacted the permanent secretary of the Department of Health, the permanent secretary in the Department of Finance and the head of civil service to ask them to urgently proceed to restore pay parity and resolve the current dispute. It is the very least our staff deserve.

“While I strongly support restoration of the Assembly and Executive to end the stalemate and start delivering for people here, the SDLP will not allow our health workers to be held to ransom, for political failings.”