The two parties which were responsible for the health service for most of the last decade have disagreed over why a decision was taken to pay Northern Ireland medics less than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.
In a televised leaders debate tonight, the DUP accepted that a decision had been taken to keep spending lower in Northern Ireland so that unpopular taxes such as water charges could be kept off the agenda.
However, Sinn Fein insisted that “Tory austerity” was the sole cause of the decision – something which has now brought NHS staff on to picket lines, toppling a health system already suffering from Stormont’s refusal to make unpopular but necessary reforms into profound crisis.
The DUP was the only party not to send its leader to represent it in the UTV debate.
In the absence of Arlene Foster, the party did not even send its Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, nor Westminster chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. Instead it was represented by South Belfast candidate Emma Little-Pengelly.
As with previous UTV leaders debates, the programme was disrupted by ad breaks. However, despite that the debate flowed better than in previous years because it was confined to three broad areas – the health crisis, Brexit and the absence of devolution.
Ms Pengelly denied that the DUP was to blame for the health crisis, saying that although its then health minister had agreed that Northern Ireland health workers would be paid less than their counterparts in the rest of the UK, that the decision was a shared “Northern Ireland Executive policy” from a time when “we were struggling with difficult budgets”.
However, she insisted “that time is over and it is now time to invest heavily in the NHS”, highlighting that the DUP had secured more than £400 million for the health service as a direct result of its deal with the Tories.
“Jim Wells was a minister in the Northern Ireland Executive – it was the Northern Ireland Executive which agreed that budget and that approach. But of course what they were prioritising was trying to keep budgets low for people in terms of no water rates and other bills.
“But of course we were suffering at that time under a very difficult budget.
“The DUP opposed austerity. That time is over. We need to get spending and that’s what we’re pushing the UK government to do.”
When asked why health is hardly mentioned in the Sinn Fein manifesto, Michelle O’Neill said: “This election is all about Brexit.” She added: “The health service is in crisis and you have to look at why the health service is in crisis – it’s because of Tory austerity.”
However, although disputing the cause of the health crisis, the DUP and Sinn Fein appeared to be in agreement about a major part of the solution – asking the Treasury for more money. The parties also endorsed the need for major reform of the health service.
Ms O’Neill denied her party should prioritise health over the Irish language act, insisting that it could have both.
UUP leader Steve Aiken said that those going on strike were doing so in “a cry for help ... because the decisions that needed to be made have not been made”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said there is a need to “take the politics out of health” rather than the parties who do not hold the health ministry “ganging up” on the health minister, as he said happened in the past.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said: “The only time the DUP are interested in collective responsibility ... is when they’re trying to spread the blame for decisions which they took.”
Sinn Fein’s red lines for Stormont’s return have not been dropped, Michelle O’Neill said.
When asked if recent comments from Mary Lou McDonald about the return of Stormont being possible meant that the party was dropping its red lines, Michelle O’Neill said during the UTV leaders debate: “No.”
Sinn Fein’s vice president said it was “really unhelpful to talk about red lines”.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said that people were “fed up” that while Stormont was not sitting, MLAs continued to be paid a salary but that devolution needed to be reformed to be “sustainable”.
She said the worst outcome would be for Stormont to return as it had been, “only for it to collapse or end up in deadlock in a few months’ time”.
UUP leader Steve Aiken said that the public was “fed up with scandal and incompetence” at Stormont and that if it could not be restored by mid-January then “we need to get to direct rule because we need effective government in Northern Ireland”.
The DUP’s South Belfast candidate, Emma Little-Pengelly, did not deny that her party would accept an Irish language act, saying that the DUP was “prepared to look at legislating to remove barriers [for the language] but it must be done in a sensible way”.
In an implicit acceptance of the DUP’s role in Stormont’s failure, she said the party was also “looking at codes of conduct” and “looking at what we got wrong before”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that “the only way we’re going to get back is if people compromise”.