Faith Matters

Norman Hamilton: We all fall short - why can't we just admit our failings?

There are numerous examples to show that humility and truthfulness in public life cannot be taken for granted, which makes any sincere acknowledgement of failings in government noteworthy - and, says Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, opens up a wider ethical issue for us all

Rev Dr Norman Hamilton

AS the RHI Inquiry showed only too well, it cannot be taken for granted that there is proper and open accountability by our elected leaders and in parts of the public service. (That is one of the reasons why high quality journalism is so important - even in a democracy such as ours).

Against this background it is therefore very important to show appreciation when a senior member of the Executive calls for humility and acknowledges real failing in government.

That is exactly what the health minister Robin Swann brought to Stormont's ad hoc committee on the Covid-19 response earlier this month.

In his address to that committee he said: "It doesn't give me any pleasure to say this, but I do think that over the last decade Stormont has let the NHS down. It has not looked after health and social care services as well as it could.

"I know under devolution this place has had very limited control over finances. That has made things very difficult.

"But still - vital services have been underfunded, short-term decisions were preferred over long-term planning; difficult choices were ducked; staff were left to feel unappreciated; social care was particularly neglected.

"This happened in other countries too. Northern Ireland is not unique. But I think a bit of humility and reflection would be in order around this House."

It is hard to disagree. Too many people have suffered too much as our hospital waiting lists went out of control.

That reality was starkly highlighted in September last year when Fact Check NI analysed the claim by the SDLP assembly member Mark H Durkan that 105,486 people were waiting over a year for a consultant-led outpatient appointment in Northern Ireland - a figure 100 times greater than in England, with its 30 times greater population. They concluded that his figures were indeed accurate.

What makes Robin Swann's comments even more remarkable is that the 10 years during which this decline happened includes a period when his own Ulster Unionist party was in the Executive, albeit not in charge of the Department of Health.

It is very important to show appreciation when a senior member of the Executive calls for humility and acknowledges real failing in government

His grip on the harsh realities of care for physical and mental health was further reinforced last week when he said that there can "be no return to the way we were in December 2019... Why should we aspire to return to a structure that was widely accepted to be flawed?".

Once again it is hard to disagree.

I have no shares in the Ulster Unionist party, and have never been a member of any political grouping, but it does seem that this minister really does believe in openness, truthfulness in high places, and in the public example of leadership which has real honesty as a driver. For that, he is to be highly commended.

Yet his comments open up a wider ethical issue for us all.

His call for humility and truthfulness, alongside the putting of time and effort into thoughtful analysis of what went wrong and why it went wrong is all too rarely valued in wider society - and we are all the poorer for that.

We indulge ourselves too much and too often. We talk ourselves up when words of caution are needed.

For example, when speaking about Brexit, the current Prime Minister told the House of Commons on July 11 2017: "There is no plan for no deal, because we're going to get a great deal. No further comment is needed."

We almost worship the fragile god of success. An article in The Guardian a few years ago said, "Individual limitations are no longer acknowledged and failure is not an option. No wonder there are frightening levels of mental illness among young people."

And Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, memorably said: "Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose."

Covid-19 shows all too clearly that they can.

We defend 'our side' even when there have been clear failings, by indulging in that very local tactic in Northern Ireland of saying 'But what about...' when we are faced with an unpalatable truth

We use slippery words to avoid acknowledging wrongdoing, even when that emerges in public. For example, only last week it was reported that a member of the House of Lords who was on furlough from his company, continued to pick-up his daily £162 allowance for carrying out his work virtually as a peer in the Lords.

He said he will repay the money he received during his time on furlough, and added: "I recognise my error in judgment and I apologise."

We can rush into outrage and personal abuse on Twitter when even a legitimate contrary opinion is offered.

We defend 'our side' even when there have been clear failings, by indulging in that very local tactic in Northern Ireland of saying 'But what about...' when we are faced with an unpalatable truth.

I write this piece as a committed Christian. One of the truths that is fundamental to my faith and worked out in my experience is that falling short and getting things wrong comes all too easily to me.

So when a public leader acknowledges failings in government, I not only understand the point he makes, but my admiration for him increases.

I find myself drawn to the words of the Apostle Paul: "Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out" (1 Thessalonians 5:13-15, from The Message translation).

Proper appreciation for people doing good work is always an encouragement to them.

So I will continue to clap for carers and the NHS tonight, and every Thursday evening - and give one too for a minister of health who has arguably the most demanding job in the Executive this week, and every week for the foreseeable future.

Rev Dr Norman Hamilton is a former Presbyterian moderator.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Faith Matters