In July, the BBC revealed that some NHS patients in Northern Ireland were waiting up to 18 months for hospital appointments. The failure of squabbling politicians to do their job was lamented by patients, health professionals and the politicians themselves.
Valerie Watts, Health and Social Care Board chief, promised that hospital times were likely to get worse without the willingness of politicians to work together to prioritise funding for the health service in order to tackle the increase in waiting lists.
Dr Alan McKinney, former medical director of the Western Health Trust, reiterated the point, saying that “politicians can’t squabble to fight about things and not make progress. Folk in Stormont and their advisors have big salaries, they have a job that needs to be done and I would like to see them get on and do that.”
Three months on and Stormont is weathering two major political scandals: the murder of ex-IRA paramilitary Kevin McGuigan, in which a high-ranking member of Sinn Féin was said to be implicated; and the NAMA* inquiry, looking into allegations that First Minister Peter Robinson was set to financially benefit from the sale of a portfolio of Northern Ireland loans to a US investment firm in 2014.
Robinson resigned (sort of) from his position on September 10 following allegations that Sinn Féin northern chairman Bobby Storey was implicated in McGuigan’s murder. His fellow DUP ministers followed suit, with the exception of Arlene Foster, who was asked to remain in her post as Finance Minister and Acting First Minister, quote, “to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland.”
Storey was released unconditionally by detectives later that day. A statement from Storey’s lawyer, John Finucane, announced that his client would be suing the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for unlawful detention and wrongful arrest. Despite a total lack of evidence, Robinson and his party remained stalwart, while rumours of criminality continued to circulate around Sinn Féin.
Addressing accusations made during cross-party talks, convened by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was firm:
“Some parties within these negotiations are attempting to give the impression that there’s linkage between a party in government – what they mean by that is Sinn Féin – and criminality.
“During the course of this morning’s engagement I took those people to task. I told them if anybody has any information whatsoever about any party in government being involved in criminality that they should put it up on the table and, more importantly, they should put it to the PSNI.
“In other words, I told them it is now time for them to put up or shut up.”
The accusation that Sinn Féin might be involved in criminal activity has not borne out. In the midst of scandal, this seems to have been forgotten, the reasons given for the resignation of DUP ministers from Stormont no longer of consequence. Meanwhile, the DUP refuses to reengage the political process. The public health system is failing. Patients, some of whom can’t afford to wait, are expected to put their health on hold.
Following an article by Marie-Louise Connelly published on the BBC News website yesterday, which quoted chief executive of the Nuffield Trust health body as saying “heads would roll” if hospital waiting figures were on the same scale in England as those currently seen in Northern Ireland, former Health Minister Simon Hamilton dared throw in his own two cents, placing the blame squarely on his political opponents.
“Our ability to deliver services in the here and now has not been helped by the fact that over the last couple of years, we have been squandering tens and tens and tens of millions of pounds because Sinn Féin and the SDLP have refused to move forward on welfare reform.
“That is money that could be going into the health service, that is money that could be taking off waiting lists and helping vulnerable people across Northern Ireland.”
How government is to “move forward” absent anyone to make decisions is left unexplained.
In some states in America, a public official’s refusal to perform a required duty of office is an arrestable offence. Kim Davis, the Rowan county clerk who refused to issue gay marriage licences in contempt of a US Supreme Court ruling, spent six days in prison as penalty.
Imagine that every time a political scandal came to light our elected officials opted to follow their conscience out the door. Imagine that they continued to draw a salary despite refusing to serve the people they were elected to serve. It would behoove us to ask whether they worked for us, or for themselves.
If Peter Robinson and Simon Hamilton (and the rest of the DUP) had any true political conviction, they would quell their personal sense of outrage in order to help those in need, who will suffer as a result of their inaction.
*The Republic of Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency.