Northern Ireland

Analysis: Stormont ministers with eyes on Westminster face unprecedented flak

Naomi Long has had to defend her decision to remain as justice minister after Robin Swann resigned to campaign in the general election

John Manley

John Manley, Politics Correspondent

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

Naomi Long said there no plans to make a description of another person’s biological sex a criminal offence
Naomi Long has insisted she remains focused on her role as justice minister. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA (Niall Carson/PA)

Whether Stormont ministers should remain in post while they contest the Westminster election has turned out to be one of the biggest talking points of the campaign so far.

Robin Swann declared his hand in January, when he was merely an MLA rather than health minister. When the institutions were restored, he signalled that it was his intention to relinquish the health portfolio when the election campaign was called.

Yet he was still the target for criticism, including from within his own party ranks. In the immediate aftermath of the North Antrim MLA’s re-appointment as health minister at the start of February, his Ulster Unionist colleague Andy Allen voiced concern publicly.

“We need a health minister with their full focus on the task at hand, not one eye on Westminster,” the East Belfast MLA said on X.

Health Minister Robin Swann voted against the budget last month, claiming it would result in dangerous cutbacks in health service delivery
Robin Swann is resigning as health minister to contest the Westminster election. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

It subsequently emerged that the Ulster Unionists had another former leader lined up to step into Mr Swann’s shoes once the starting gun was fired on the election campaign.

By the time you read this, it’s likely Mike Nesbitt is now in post at the Department of Health and his predecessor is out knocking doors in South Antrim, where he hopes to unseat the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

Mr Swann’s decision to stand down appeared to put pressure on Naomi Long, who after months of deliberation announced on Monday that she will be aiming to retake the East Belfast seat she held between 2010-2015, while remaining as justice minister.

The former Ulster Unionist leader and the Alliance leader are the only two ministers faced with this particular dilemma as Sinn Féin made it clear in April that none of its executive team would be running for Westminster and no DUP Stormont ministers have been selected as general election candidates.

UUP leader Doug Beattie has questioned whether Mrs Long will be interrogated to the same extent Mr Swann was, though to some the comparison is unfair because health is supposed to be the executive’s priority.

The Alliance leader has insisted that she remains focused on her role as justice minister, and points out that she has fought elections previously while a minister.

She argues that it would be more disruptive to the Department of Justice if she were to stand down for the duration of the campaign.

Mrs Long’s situation is further complicated by the fact that the justice minister is appointed outside of D’Hondt.

Jim Allister pointed out earlier this week that the assembly would have to elect her successor and that if unsuccessful in the Westminster election then the Alliance leader “could only return if replacement obliged by resigning, which might not happen”.

The other executive parties, particularly the DUP, are unlikely to make it easy for Mrs Long to move from her ministry to campaigning and potentially back again, so arguably she’s left with little choice than to stay where she is.

However, if not being guaranteed a return to the executive is her reasoning, then the justice minister should be upfront about it. Also, her claim that ministers in other devolved administrations are also running for Westminster doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The problem primarily appears to be about timing, as it’s never been a big deal in the past. The institutions have only been back for four months after a two-year hiatus and there’s a public expectation that Stormont should focus on the task in hand rather than ministers seeking to switch legislatures for party political purposes.

It’s moot whether Mrs Long’s decision not to resign will impact on her bid to become an MP but it’s certainly not a good look going into what may well be the most important election campaign of her political career.