I know nothing about what is going on with health job, says Jim Wells

MLA Jim Wells
MLA Jim Wells

The DUP MLA publicly announced as Health Minister Edwin Poots’ successor has said that he has not been told anything about the situation for two years.

As speculation about Mr Poots’ position intensifies after his vow not to break his budget rather than implement cuts at the department, Jim Wells gave no indication that he has been put on standby to take over the key role.

In May 2011, Peter Robinson announced that he would replace Sammy Wilson with Simon Hamilton as finance minister and that half way through the Assembly term Mr Wells would take over as health minister.

It is now more than a year since Mr Hamilton was appointed as finance minister, but there have been no moves to fulfil the public promise to Mr Wells.

Last year the News Letter reported that there had been months of quiet suggestions from within and around the DUP that the veteran South Down MLA was unlikely to ever become health minister.

At the time, one source suggested that the party hierarchy feared that Mr Wells would not have the stomach for tough decisions which Mr Poots has set in motion, such as cutting the number of acute hospitals to centralise medics in larger centres, as in England.

Mr Poots last week took dramatic action to demand more money for his department, issuing an effective ‘back me or sack me’ message to the Executive.

Just weeks ago, Mr Poots’ department was criticised by the DUP finance minister for failing to adequately manage its vast budget.

Mr Wells’ name has not featured among those who it is suggested may take over from Mr Poots if he is removed by the First Minister.

When contacted by the News Letter yesterday, Mr Wells said that he had not been contacted by anyone in the party about the position.

Mr Wells, who is on holiday, said that the last time he was spoken to about the ministerial position was two years ago.

At the weekend the Irish News reported that two senior DUP figures thought to be future leadership contenders had been sounded out about the health job.

The paper said that former finance minister Sammy Wilson may be line to take over as health minister after enterprise minister Arlene Foster had declined the position.

Mr Wells and Mr Poots are from the same ‘old DUP’ wing of the party, with deeply socially conservative Christian values.

Health post seen as a poisoned chalice

The health department is by far the biggest department at Stormont, accounting for around half the Executive’s budget.

However, in political terms it has long been seen as a poisoned chalice. If the NHS is generally working well, there is little credit given to the minister, while any problems in the health or social care system tend to be blamed on the politician at the top.

Mr Poots has faced a series of challenges, including chronic problems at the accident and emergency department at Belfast’s Royal Victoria hospital.