Belfast Telegraph

Embattled minsters go in reshuffle

Two of Northern Ireland's most under pressure Executive Ministers have been removed from office after a major reshuffle.

The First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Peter Robinson make the shock announcement on Twitter before posting pictures of his new team.

South Down MLA, Jim Wells has replaced the beleaguered Edwin Poots at the Department of Health while North Antrim MLA, Mervyn Storey was handed the Social Development brief pushing out an embattled Nelson McCausland.

Mr Robinson insisted the shake-up was about "churning around" his party ahead of next year's election and not removing Ministers who may have courted controversy.

"I stand by the Ministers I have had in the past. I think they did an excellent job," he said.

Mr Robinson added: "I believe these appointments will give us a good and strong team for a very difficult time."

Mr Poots has faced criticism following his decision not to lift a ban on gay men giving blood.

Northern Ireland's most senior judge has said comments by Mr Poots about the judiciary during an assembly debate on the issue were detrimental to the rule of law and damaging to public confidence in the justice system.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan outlined his concerns in a letter to the first and deputy first ministers eight months ago.

On finances, Mr Poots said he could not cut any more from his health budget and been vocal in his criticism of Sinn Fein over the Executive impasse with his party.

He took to Twitter to wish his replacement good luck in a "hugely challenging but rewarding job".

He said it had been a "huge privilege to have been health minister for 39 months".

Veteran MLA Jim Wells has been deputy chairman of the health committee at Stormont for five years and has often been described as the 'minister-in-waiting'.

He was an Assembly member for the South Down constituency from 1982 to 1986 and is in his fourth term having been re-elected in 1998.

Mr Wells, who is against abortion, said he did not underestimate the difficulties ahead and highlighted budgets as his "number one priority".

"I know what's going on in the background," he said. "I am under no illusions."

The decision to replace Mr McCausland, who faced fierce criticism over his handling of Housing Executive contractors, has taken some by surprise.

The North Belfast MLA, who was made Minister for Social Development in 2011, has been under pressure since he accused four building firms of being involved in a Housing Executive scandal.

He refused to apologise to the four companies named in the Assembly last year as having received an estimated £18 million in overpayments and the DUP was forced to raise a petition of concern to veto a vote of no confidence in him.

The DUP leader described Mr McCausland as a " very loyal friend" who was "eminently re-appointable".

His replacement, Mervyn Storey is a former chairman of the education committee where he was a staunch critic of the Education Minister's handling of the controversial Education and Skills Authority.

The Ballymoney man, who is in his third term at the Assembly, entered politics on the council at his home town in 2001.

The major challenges in Social Development include overseeing the implementation of controversial welfare reforms which have threatened to bring down the Stormont institutions.

Other changes to the DUP Assembly team include the appointment of Michelle McIlveen, from Strangford, as the new chair of the education committee; South Antrim MLA Trevor Clarke has been made chairman of the regional development committee and Alastair Ross from East Antrim replaces Paul Givan as justice committee chair.

Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale will sit on the Policing Board, Paula Bradley from North Belfast has joined the health committee as vice chairman while William Irwin will take over from Paul Frew as chairman of the agricultural committee.

Mr McCausland, who was made Minister for Social Development in 2011, has been under pressure since he accused four building firms of being involved in a Housing Executive scandal.

He refused to apologise to the four companies named in the Assembly last year as having received an estimated £18 million in overpayments.

He had previously been Minster for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mr Robinson tweeted that Jim Wells would be the new Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, replacing Edwin Poots.

Mr Wells told the BBC he had felt his appointment was not going to happen.

"I thought Edwin was doing a very good job and thought he may well continue.

"It came as a total shock to me today when the first minister called me in and told me.

"It certainly was not in my diary and tomorrow could be frenetic."

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