Jake O'Kane: Robin Swann's hard work and determination has saved lives

Robin Swann has been a point of sanity and stability as he followed scientific advice and courageously stood up to those attempting to weaponise Covid in our perpetual party-political infighting

Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann was only weeks in his post when the first case of Covid-19 in was diagnosed in the north
Jake O'Kane

I’VE spent a fair part of my life as a comic and writer highlighting the deficiencies of local politicians. I couldn’t have done otherwise, considering the crowd we’ve had up on the hill. That said, I find myself in the welcome and unusual position of this week being positive about one of their number.

Robin Swann, Northern Ireland health minister throughout this pandemic, has been a point of sanity and stability as he followed scientific advice and courageously stood up to those attempting to weaponise Covid in our perpetual party-political infighting.

Having stood down as leader of the UUP, Mr Swann was only a matter of weeks into his new role as health minister when the first case of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland was diagnosed. The workload involved in captaining our health service through the pandemic was obviously a daunting challenge.

Robin Swann threw himself into his new role, remaining positive, even when undermined by the DUP after they brought two cross-community vetoes against restrictions recommended by the chief medical officer last November.

We can but imagine his frustration as he navigated the NHS and those who rely on it through this unprecedented crisis. He gave an indication of his annoyance last week when he admitted, "Some of the decisions that were taken, if they had been taken at a different speed, at a different time, would have had a different direction and would have saved lives and made a difference."

Robin Swann can rest assured that when the story of this pandemic is written, he will be remembered as someone whose hard work and determination not only made a difference, but saved lives.

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WORLD-renowned virologist and expert in pandemic management, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, recently accused Robin Swann of acting like “… a poodle for the unaccountable chief medical officer”. There are few certainties in Northern Ireland politics but being criticised by Sammy Wilson guarantees you’re on the right path.

As Sammy has become jowly over the years, when I see his face I get a flashback to a Sunday morning in 1996. Upon opening the Sunday papers, my eyes were assaulted by pictures of Sammy’s other cheeks, galivanting around a field in France.

Like many I thought it was a disgrace those images were published; I was but a child in my 30s, much too young to be exposed to such horror. Even now, there are nights when I wake in a cold sweat, screaming, "Put trousers on him, in the name of God, somebody put trousers on him’".

Therapy and counselling have been no use. Sammy’s cheeks have burned themselves on to my retina and I’ve accepted I’m just going to have to live with them. So, if you were born after 1996, think yourself fortunate; you aren’t Generation Z, you’re Generation-post-Sammy-Wilson’s-bum-cheeks.

* * *

MY RECENT defence here of the Nolan Show was the catalyst for a predictable avalanche of online abuse. This is the second occasion I’ve commented on the phenomenon of online trolls, the last time being September past. What’s changed in the interim is the volume and viciousness of the abuse. Social media unsurprisingly mirrors what’s happening in society, and what’s occured here is greater division and a hardening of entrenched sectarianism.

Thankfully, having worked as stand-up comic for more than 20 years, I’m somewhat impervious to the online nonsense. There’s hardly a disparaging, derogatory, denigratory or defamatory pejorative some heckler hasn’t lobbed in my direction while on stage. In comparison, online abuse is at best anaemic, at worst derivative and unimaginative. I mean, ‘You’re not funny’ isn’t going to leave me in paroxysms of self-doubt; my wife has hit me with that on more than one occasion.

I’m conscious that not everyone is as thick-skinned and the trolling I’ve experienced is nothing compared to the vile abuse female journalists here endure on a daily basis. Trolls will continue to thrive online for as long as social media platforms allow anonymous accounts. Arguing online anonymity protects people from abuse is akin to arguing guns protect people from being shot.


So, going forward, I’ve decided to block all anonymous accounts from following me, my rule being that if you haven’t the guts to put your name to it, I don’t want to see it.

I’d urge the boys – and they’re always boys – hiding in the shadows to become men and step into the light. There’s no guarantee I still won’t block you but at least I won’t hold you in the contempt I have for the online bullies skulking in cowardly anonymity.

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