Patients not at risk, says absent DUP health chief Simon Hamilton
The DUP's Simon Hamilton has strongly attacked as "nonsense" claims that his absence as Health Minister is harming patient care.
In a strongly-worded defence of the party's policy of ministerial resignations, Mr Hamilton insisted that he will not be going back to his post full-time until there is progress in the current round of political talks.
The talks, which will enter their third week today, were sparked by the political crisis after the Chief Constable said members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the murder of Kevin McGuigan.
The DUP has been criticised for its policy of resigning and then retaking its ministerial positions. Its ministers have collectively resigned and been reappointed a total of 18 times.
But Mr Hamilton has been under massive pressure, with a number of prominent healthcare officials saying he must resume his position as Health Minister as soon as possible because of a spiralling waiting list crisis.
Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, the DUP man admitted many people did not understand why he was not permanently in-post.
He said: "Our opponents seek to convince people that my absence from my desk at Castle Buildings is impacting on the care that patients in our health service receive. This is nothing short of nonsense.
"No minister performs the operations. Or carries out the tests. Or delivers the care packages. Yet that's what others would have you believe.
"Our health and social care system runs on a day-to-day basis because of the outstanding efforts of our staff."
Mr Hamilton added: "While we will not return to office until sufficient progress has been made in the talks, we will and have done business that benefits everyone."
But he insisted that when he did resume his position full-time he would be seeking a substantial funding boost to go towards reducing waiting lists.
"A resolution of the welfare reform impasse must result in more money to reduce waiting lists.
I will also outline ambitious plans I have developed to move forward on reconfiguring services and restructuring how our health system works. Given the constant calls over the last week for me to take decisive action, I trust that when I bid for more funding and outline my vision for health and social care, I will receive the wholehearted backing of the other parties."
But Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said the DUP tactic was adding to the stress of the current political situation.
The parties "cannot be sat in talks until Christmas", she told BBC NI.
"We just don't have that time," she added.
In a tough-talking message as the annual Conservative Conference got under way, she said she believed Prime Minister David Cameron's deadline of the end of this month for a deal was realistic.
And she again underlined that Westminster was not going to provide additional funding for the welfare system in the province, insisting: "We were generous in the Stormont House Agreement. We cannot go beyond that."
But Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said: "The reality is that Tory austerity remains the biggest threat to the political institutions and we need a united voice from all political parties and wider civic society challenging that agenda.
"The British Government need to accept they have created the current political difficulties with their austerity cuts agenda. They cannot evade that responsibility and present themselves as some sort of honest broker."
And SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell insisted Northern Ireland would not just "take the medicine" on the welfare changes.
"I have said repeatedly to the Secretary of State that the British Government must take account of the historic imbalances in our economy," the South Belfast MP said. "Reform of the welfare system is one thing, but hurting our most marginalised is another."
Mrs Villiers, however, insisted the Stormont parties would have to find funding to supplement the current welfare provision from their own coffers.
There seemed to be an assumption that the solution was going to involved a "big cheque from Westminster". She added: "That isn't going to happen."