Belfast Telegraph

Swann keen to see Northern Ireland health pay dispute ended 'right away'

Robin Swann meeting an NHS worker on the picket line last month
Robin Swann meeting an NHS worker on the picket line last month

By David Young and Adrian Rutherford

New Health Minister Robin Swann is to meet trade unions involved in strike action as other parties face questions over why they avoided the portfolio.

The former Ulster Unionist leader said he wanted to resolve the industrial dispute "right away".

Health unions have been taking strike action over pay parity and staffing levels, which nurses say are unsafe.

Mr Swann said: "I am happy to confirm that contact has been made with trade unions and I will be meeting with them as soon as possible this week. I'm looking forward to getting this dispute sorted right away.

"Obviously, the financial package for the new Executive and support from other Ministerial colleagues will be central to making that happen.

"We need our nurses and other health workers back at work. There's a massive challenge for all of us in making our health service better and our great staff have a vital role to play in that."

Healthcare workers across Northern Ireland staged a fresh round of strike action last Friday. About 9,000 Royal College of Nursing (RCN) members were joined by nurses and other Unison workers.

Pat Cullen, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, welcomed Mr Swann's move.

"We are keen and available to meet the Minister at his earliest convenience to begin the process of resolving the issues in our current dispute," she said.

"The restoration of pay parity has been addressed in the New Decade, New Approach deal, but of equal importance are the issues we have outlined in relation to safe staffing, and ensuring that we have the nursing workforce in place to be able to deliver the reform that our health services so badly need."

Anne Speed from Unison said: "This prompt move by minister Swann is recognition that the determination and courage of thousands of health workers has made the health service the key priority for our new government."

The crisis engulfing the health service is arguably the most pressing priority for Stormont.

However, when it came to the selection of the ministerial briefs, the DUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP all passed on the chance to select the health portfolio.

It led to claims that the other parties wanted to dodge what is viewed as the most challenging of the ministerial roles.

DUP Economy Minister Diane Dodds insisted the issue should not be viewed as party political.

"Robin Swann is not from my party but he will be my colleague in the executive and it will be absolutely vitally important that he is successful in that portfolio so his success will be the executive's success and we need to work together," she told RTE.

Sinn Fein said it would directly support Mr Swann through its roles in the Executive Office and at the Department of Finance.

Sinn Fein Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said all the portfolios were interconnected.

"On one portfolio or another, all of these issues are important, all of these issues impact and connect on each other in terms of how we prevent people even falling sick in the first place," she told BBC NI's Sunday Politics show.

The SDLP's Colin McGrath told the same programme that his party would only have taken health if it had also controlled the finance department, so it could influence the budget allocation.

He said previous health ministers had seen their budgets "robbed" of millions of pounds by decisions taken elsewhere in the executive.

The SDLP selected infrastructure as its chosen ministry.

The party had fifth choice under the d'Hondt system for allocating seven executive ministries. Before that the DUP and Sinn Fein selected four other posts between them.

The UUP had sixth pick and only then was health selected. The party has insisted the brief was its number one choice.

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