Edwin Poots has questioned whether the demands for an Irish language act “trumps the right to get a hip operation” as Sinn Fein restated its refusal to form an Executive at Stormont.
The former DUP health minister was speaking after Northern Ireland’s five health trusts announced proposals for £70 million worth of service cuts to meet reduced budgets.
Mr Poots said a locally elected minister in place would “never sign off” on such measures and slammed Sinn Fein’s “wrong” priorities.
“The most important services provided to people is healthcare,” he said.
“Does the right to Irish language trump the right to get a knee or hip operation within a reasonable period of time? It’s clear in my mind that it doesn’t.
“If someone is going blind is that of less importance than us providing all of the facilities that they are demanding for speakers of a minority language?
“What they are doing is wrong, and it is affecting all of the people in Northern Ireland.”
As part of the proposals put out for consultation, the Belfast Trust said it could limit NHS-funded fertility treatments, and that waiting lists for elective care could rise by another six months.
Additionally, it also aims to reduce the number of patients offered residential home placements.
Mr Poots said: “The only people preventing locally elected ministers from making these decisions is Sinn Fein.”
He said civil servants have made a decision “that a government minister would never sign off on” and that Sinn Fein had questions to answer over priorities.
“There is more than £30 million a year already being spent on Irish language so it’s not something that his being discriminated against in a really harsh way,” he said.
“The want all of the roads signs in Irish, but the cost of actually doing that has been costed by the civil service at £100m. There’s not a chance that we can agree to that whenever we are sitting with £70m cuts to the health service.”
The Lagan Valley MLA also said he didn’t believe Sinn Fein wanted to re-establish an Executive.
“I don’t think Sinn Fein have any interest whatsoever in returning to the Executive in the short term. I think they are more concerned about how Brexit might pan out, and don’t want to be in any form of government that might associate them with whatever Brexit brings,” he added.
The proposals prompted a joint statement from the medical professional bodies, calling for “urgent action”.
The Medical Royal Colleges’ said: “The current situation is unsustainable. In order to improve services and deliver the necessary transformation which is in the best interest of patients, the health budget needs to be spent strategically. We urge politicians to reflect carefully on the current situation and to work together to save our health service.”
Dr John D Woods, chair of BMA’s NI Council, said the potential impact of the proposals “cannot be underestimated,” and added: “While these proposals are aimed at hospital care, if implemented there will be a subsequent impact on GPs who are already overwhelmed.”
A leading cancer care charity also called for political action.
Roisin Foster of Cancer Focus NI said: “This inactivity on our pressing health matters has been a continuing problem for long enough. We need our politicians back in Stormont to give proper leadership.”
Sinn Fein said it would “fiercely oppose” cuts to health services.
North Belfast MLA Carál Ní Chuilín said: “These cuts are not the result of the crisis at Stormont – they are the result of austerity policies conceived and implemented by a Tory cabinet in London.
“Of course a sustainable and properly resourced local Executive would help mitigate against the worst impact of austerity but the DUP continue to block its restoration through their insistence on discrimination against many sections of our society.”
Ms Ni Chuilin added: “I would challenge any other party who are now calling for an immediate restoration of the Executive whether they are prepared to do so on the DUP’s terms and to abandon their own position in support of rights and equality for the LGB and T communities, Irish speakers and families of victims.”