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Simon Hamilton: It is nonsense to suggest my absence from Stormont is damaging our care system

By Simon Hamilton

Published 05/10/2015

Health Minister Simon Hamilton
Health Minister Simon Hamilton

I know that many people don't understand why I am not permanently in post as Health Minister. I have to admit I understand people's frustration, as it is not a situation I relish in any way. I want to be back in office full-time doing a job that I have enjoyed since my initial appointment back in May.

It is far from ideal, but then so too are the circumstances we find ourselves in.

The Chief Constable has pointed the finger of blame for the murder of Kevin McGuigan at the Provisional IRA.

Like the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, I had hoped that the Sinn Fein-linked Provisional IRA had genuinely left the stage for good. Sadly, the PSNI's assessment has suggested otherwise and in the process republicans have undermined political stability.

But then, undermining Stormont has been a constant course of action for Sinn Fein for over two years now. Since Martin McGuinness failed to persuade his party to support the deal on welfare reform he did with Peter Robinson in 2013, Sinn Fein - and the SDLP - have squandered over £150 million.

Even without the crisis sparked by the McGuigan murder, Stormont's future would have been in the balance because of Sinn Fein and the SDLP's immaturity and inability to live up to the commitments they made last Christmas. But that crisis has been exacerbated by the involvement of Provisional IRA members in murder on the streets of Belfast.

Without a successful resolution to the issues that confront us, it won't be so-called 'in, out' ministers that will be the problem. Northern Ireland will have no devolved ministers at all.

In their place will be Tory ministers who will bring back the hallmarks of direct rule, which means an inherent lack of understanding of the issues affecting Northern Ireland.

The DUP did not want to be in this position. We offered other parties the opportunity to adjourn the Assembly, which would have left ministers in post. Some of the very same parties who now criticise the DUP voted against an adjournment.

They were warned that things would be messy. That the situation would be ugly. But they ignored us and left us with no option but to resign.

Now, 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 and they continue to do an excellent job caring for the people of Northern Ireland whether I am in post or not.

They also want you to believe that the current problems with waiting lists have suddenly materialised since I first resigned. Again, this is plain wrong. At the heart of the waiting list problem is insufficient resources.

DUP Health Ministers were getting to grips with the legacy left to them in 2011 up until the welfare reform crisis kicked in and penalties to London had to be paid. My predecessors warned the other parties.

I warned them, too, when I was Finance Minister. Our predictions have come true. Losing millions and millions of pounds in welfare reform penalties is adversely affecting public services and harming vulnerable people who need help. People waiting for an operation should rightly expect better performance from their health service but I hope they bear in mind the effect Sinn Fein and the SDLP choosing opposition to welfare reform over waiting lists has had.

Our position is clear. 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. Even over the last few weeks I've funded new NICE-approved drugs and treatments, made progress on providing inpatient treatment for people suffering from eating disorders and released funding for GPs.

But I know that much more work is required to resolve problems with our waiting lists and to transform our health and social care system into the kind of world-class one we all deserve.

Resolving issues around paramilitarism and welfare reform will allow me to return to post as Health Minister, but also address waiting lists and the need for fundamental reform.

I will, when back in post, seek a substantial funding boost for the Department of Health that can be directed 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 political parties.

Belfast Telegraph

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