We rate the NI Executive members
Having helped to guide Northern Ireland through the Covid-19 pandemic, late April saw Arlene Foster’s shock announcement that she was quitting as DUP leader and First Minister in the face of mounting discontent within her party.
Months earlier she and her Executive colleagues were facing criticism over their Covid decision dysfunction. Foster even admitted if she had to mark Stormont’s theoretical pandemic report card, it would read: “Could do better.”
But the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA soon faced a revolt against her leadership over the handling of Brexit and a decision to abstain in a vote on gay conversion therapy.
She left her DUP role a month later. Her successor Paul Givan was just hours in the job as First Minister when his mentor, Edwin Poots, who had nominated him, was forced to resign as party leader.
It was believed that Givan would be swiftly out of Stormont Castle as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson opted for one of his own supporters.
Three weeks later he’s still there, and with the Assembly rising for the summer, he’ll get at least two months more. It’s impossible to score him on such a short stint in office, but he hasn’t made any mistakes yet.
This time last year demands for Michelle O’Neill to resign were coming thick and fast. Bobby Storey’s funeral damaged her personal credibility and that of her party.
The Deputy First Minister weathered the storm and is in an immeasurably stronger position 12 months on thanks to the DUP’s implosion.
While the Storey funeral was certainly not an orange and green issue, the way the controversy developed resulted in it largely working out that way.
The majority of unionists remain angry, whereas most nationalists seem no longer interested in the matter. Opinion poll results indicate her ratings have risen slightly among Alliance and Green voters.
O’Neill has served in the Executive as Agriculture and Health Minister, as well as her current position.
Polling suggests that, come May, she will go one better and become First Minister, with Sinn Fein emerging as the largest party.
That would represent such a huge psychological blow to unionism, that devolution might not survive.
O’Neill works hard in a way that’s perhaps not seen by the public.
On official duties she is always pleasant and approachable, which, in trying times, can count for a lot.
How do you rate someone who has done an impossible job?
When Robin Swann became health minister in January 2020, most people had a degree of sympathy for him.
After all, here was someone with very limited experience of the workings of the health service stepping into a role that many view as a poisoned chalice. There were a number of significant issues in the in-tray — not least bringing to an end the crippling strike action by healthcare staff.
Money was made available to bring an end to the dispute through New Deal, New Approach, and within a fortnight, a deal was made.
However, the strike was only suspended and further action is potentially looming after the government told the NHS Pay Review Body that a 1% pay rise for NHS staff for 2021/22 is all it can afford.
The next biggest issue facing Robin Swann was hospital waiting lists — and then the pandemic hit.
The pandemic has been a greater challenge than anyone could have imagined.
And while mistakes have been made, in particular the shambolic management of care homes at the start of the pandemic, he has been a steadfast voice of reason who has refused to allow party politics stop him from making decisions that matter.
Conor Murphy is a safe pair of hands who’s shown decisive leadership with the finance portfolio.
One observer comments that he is relatively competent and “doesn’t drop any howlers”.
However, there was one back in April last year when he had to confirm that a joint PPE order for the Republic and NI from China hadn’t materialised.
Mr Murphy said it was because “major economic powers entered the global race for PPE”.
However, the observer suggests he has lacked “front-footedness” in setting out a strategy for his department, instead focusing on the Treasury’s failure to set out multi-year allocations and multi-year spending reviews. But he is praised by business over the ability of Department of Finance agency Land & Property Services to give out grants in the crisis, pivoting from its normal work of collecting rates.
And he gets a special mention for the speed with which he drew up a rates holiday scheme for businesses, while also remembering to restrict it so that large food stores didn’t benefit.
One business leader remarks: “He was very keen to take quick action. He recognised that when you’re in a crisis, it’s important to study and make sure you make the right decision — but you need to make them quickly.”
There’s no doubt that Upper Bann MLA Diane Dodds went up in the estimation of the business community during her tenure as Economy Minister.
She doggedly protested against the NI Protocol despite the fact Invest NI — part of her department — was actively promoting it.
There were high levels of stress and sick leave in the department, and mistakes with grant distribution, with wind farms ending up receiving £10,000 under the small business support scheme.
However, the harshest criticism is directed at the High Street Stimulus Scheme. It will allocate £100 to all adults for spending in stores, but should have been more targeted to help independent retail, it has been argued.
There were also wins, such as launching an effort to help self-employed people who’d been excluded from the main Self-Employed Income Support Scheme .
Her successors can’t yet be marked.
As an MLA, Paul Frew had spoken out against the ownership by EirGrid in the Republic of the System Operator for NI, which runs the electricity transmission network.
However, with his swift exit as minister under Sir Jeffrey Donaldson , SONI has definitely dodged some tough scrutiny.
After dealing with the MOT chaos the previous year, Nichola Mallon probably hoped to have an easier ride this term.
With Covid, however, it was not to be. She faced criticism for an apparent delay in setting up a support scheme for taxi drivers, which was later rectified.
She did earn praise with pushing “go green”, electrifying many of her department’s vehicles and opening a 10-metre ‘parklet’ in Belfast city centre.
Some MLAs and members of the public will mark Ms Mallon down for her role in the ongoing saga of the much-delayed York Street Interchange project, particularly over transparency issues after she refused to share a viability report into the scheme with Belfast City Council.
Another issue for Infrastructure came in April, when a court ruled it took part in a “clandestine” process with a firm bidding for deals to resurface roads.
However, little blame can be placed on Ms Mallon as the contracts under scrutiny were awarded before her tenure.
The Infrastructure Minister has earned support and criticism along traditional lines over her tough stance on contentious bonfires, taking legal action over one pyre in Tigers Bay built on land owned by her department.
Minister Deirdre Hargey was not in post at the start of this Assembly year due to health reasons, her role temporarily filled by Caral Ni Chuilin. She resumed the job in November 2020 and has caused some controversy.
She has had to deal with Northern Ireland’s housing crisis, with tens of thousands of people here registered as homeless and a lack of social housing.
Ms Hargey recently outlined how “transformative change” is needed to address these challenges, setting out plans to revitalise the Housing Executive and introduce ring-fenced funds to prioritise new social housing in areas where there is highest housing need.
Ms Hargey has some hurdles during her tenure as a result of Covid. A scathing watchdog report was published in June that found issues with how a hardship fund for sport clubs was administered.
Another report also found that too many people have had their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claims “unfairly rejected”.
The report said there was a failure by both Ms Hargey’s Department for Communities and Capita, which carries out the assessments, to seek and use further evidence, including that from medical professionals. Despite this, Ms Hargey extended Capita’s PIP contract.
Naomi Long has had a short but eventful time as minister, coming into post just two months before the pandemic.
Despite this there has been progress on non-Covid issues.
But first there was the issue of dealing with the prison population in an unprecedented lockdown.
Limiting risk meant releasing some inmates early. This was not popular with victims, but given the relatively small number who had to be returned for breaching their terms of release, the scheme was considered a success, with outbreaks of Covid in prison much lower than in Britain.
Progress was made on the Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Bill. It will make coercive control a crime for the first time.
She clashed with Stormont’s Justice Committee over proposed legal aid amendments.
Stalking legislation has not been passed and we remain the only part of these islands not protected by laws governing it.
The Troubles victims’ pension, for which she assumed control, is likely to remain controversial as those injured continue to campaign for swifter implementation of the scheme.
A confident media performer, the Alliance Party leader is never short of words, and her Twitter use remains the highest of any Executive minister.
A year ago the problems were mounting for minister Peter Weir.
Having faced several months of firefighting, flames were springing up everywhere.
The biggest issue arrived in August, with confusion for A-level students over their algorithm-assessed grades, which were quickly reverted to teacher-led awards.
The chaos was calmed just in time for GCSE grades, but trust with the teaching unions was damaged.
Despite attacks from all sides, Mr Weir remained steadfast in his efforts to get pupils back into schools as quickly and safely as possible.
That was achieved after Easter, though late decisions were an issue with pupils, teachers and parents having little time to prepare.
A blighted term of office did end with a flourish after the publication of the Fair Start report into underachievement.
The baton passed to DUP colleague Michelle McIlveen, who will now have to secure the millions needed to put recommendations into practice on that.
It would be harsh to judge Mr Weir as a failure, with the educational landscape shaped by other events. The pandemic played into the hands of his critics, and many decisions around restrictions were out of his control.
It’s easy to forget that Edwin Poots has spent the last year in a key Executive position as Minister for Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs, and he’s still there as things stand despite all that has been revolving around his DUP leadership, aborted after three weeks.
The day job has been dominated by Brexit, which saw growing tensions with Dublin in particular, including several no-shows at cross-border meetings.
Entrenched in a legal challenge to the NI Protocol, his stance has left him at odds with Dublin, the EU and the British Government.
Successes are difficult to point at. A decision to temporarily suspended Brexit checks at ports over “credible threats” to workers, a claim later dismissed by the PSNI, stoked tensions further.
He also attempted to halt construction on Brexit border posts, but stepped back due to legal obligations.
He has introduced his Climate Change Bill to the Assembly, though it will be autumn before MLAs get to debate the contents. It aims to put measures in place to cut carbon emissions by 82%.
Mr Poots also missed time off through illness with a cancer diagnosis before Christmas. Gordon Lyons stepped in briefly, but the minister soon returned to his desk.