Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Ulster care homes mess typifies state of Stormont politics

Grim reality - we face a long road of change.

The First and deputy First Ministers should be commended for making a start at last. Northern Ireland cannot have a truly shared future unless Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are demonstrating a greater togetherness in public, as has not been apparent until now.

The frequency of their joint appearances in the past month makes a welcome change. The international spotlight is about to fall once again on Northern Ireland as Fermanagh hosts the G8 summit.

No doubt, special news reports will be beamed around the world about the state of political play and the extent to which the promise of partnership and peace has been delivered.

With the most powerful leaders on the planet arriving next month, the Stormont Executive must present a more stable, progressive image.

The Robinson-McGuinness package of measures, aimed at improving community relations, fits in that context.

We face a long, long road ahead still, as evidenced by the 2023 deadline for removing all peace walls. Nothing besmirches Belfast more than the existence of these barriers to better relations, but surely 10 years is too long to wait for their removal.

One fundamental problem facing the First and deputy First Minister is that their respective parties continue to sing from very different hymn-sheets.

Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness must lead by example. A public image which shows them more comfortable, relaxed and respectful to one another sends out a message to the community at large and needs to filter down through the ranks of their own parties.

The politics of Stormont continues to exasperate and infuriate, which is worrying for the future of devolution here.

One debacle seems to follow another, as was evidenced recently by the costly abandonment of a major road scheme in west Ulster and the embarrassing and emotional debate on the closure of residential care homes for the elderly.

The row over whether 50% or 100% of residential care homes should close has provided insight on decision-making in the health service.

It has also proved a case study into how media scrutiny is the only effective opposition to the five-party Stormont coalition – beyond the lone voice of the TUV leader, Jim Allister.

The whole sorry episode underlines what a poison-filled chalice the health portfolio can be – not just for the minister concerned, but those who are charged with responsibility for the individual trusts.

Collectively, they need to have eyes in the back of their heads to manage a business as complex and unpredictable as the health service, eating up nearly half Stormont's annual expenditure budget.

The health minister, Edwin Poots, survived the crisis by distancing himself belatedly from decisions his department, if not himself, must have known were in the offing.

It beggars belief that not one, but three health trusts could arrive at the same conclusion – namely that all residential care homes in their areas should close – and that no one at Stormont had an inkling.

Maybe nothing was communicated to Mr Poots in writing. But, surely, amid the day-to-day phonecalls and contacts between the trusts, the health and social care board and the minister's department and office, a little bird would have told him something was afoot?

Whether the closures are 50%, 75%, or 100%, there is uncertainty for the elderly residents of remaining care homes. It is not possible to close more than 50% of care homes, which was and is still Mr Poots' position, without an unspecified number of residents having to leave their accommodation and go somewhere else.

The issue at stake is how this news can be sensitively communicated. No doubt this will now be carefully reviewed in the light of media interviews with distressed elderly residents.

The Assembly debate emphasised the parochial minds of MLAs, more interested in keeping care homes open in their constituencies, than accepting the need for change.

Residential care accounts for only a morsel of the savage spending cut in the health service. Put in perspective, the row has been blown out of all proportion to the bigger picture of traumatic change within the sector.

The health service is left now in a situation where the right strategy for the future is placed on a back-burner at, presumably, added cost. Meanwhile, the trusts across Northern Ireland are being asked to cut more than £200m from their budgets by 2016.

That is where the real concern of politicians and the public should be focused.

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