Northern Ireland

Analysis: The electorate will decide whether party politics should trump policy implementation

Stormont ministers will likely face criticism for running in Westminster elections so soon after the institutions have been restored

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long urged people taking part in strike action to act within the law
Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY (Liam McBurney/PA)

Running Robin Swann as the Ulster Unionist Party’s candidate in South Antrim initially looked like a good idea, on paper at least.

His former party colleague Danny Kinahan topped the poll in the constituency in 2015, demonstrating it was a winnable seat for an Ulster Unionist, while Mr Swann received widespread praise for his previous record at the Department of Health.

Stormont ministers running in Westminster elections is nothing new and is a practice most if not all parties have tried in the past. Being in the executive increases a candidate’s media profile, so it makes sense to select somebody that the public already recognises.

Mr Swann’s selection as a candidate in South Antrim was made just days before Stormont’s restoration in February but at the time there was an expectation that the institutions would be up and running within weeks.

Within days of re-taking the health portfolio, the North Antrim MLA faced questions about his priorities: how could he fully focus on his brief and the long-awaited transformation of health and social care with one eye of the House of Commons?

Paul Givan said he believes his party can hold the Lagan Valley seat
Paul Givan could be the DUP's candidate in Lagan Valley

Doug Beattie then raised the possibility of withdrawing Mr Swann as the party’s candidate, as questions around the health minister’s election plans were raised, including by his UUP colleague Andy Allen.

Now it transpires Mr Swann will step down for the duration of campaigning at least, with Mike Nesbitt earmarked to take his place at the executive table. It may not directly hamper the health minister’s bid for Westminster but undoubtedly the optics are poor, leaving him open to allegations that he prioritises party politics over policy implementation.

The situation has direct parallels with Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long, who has reportedly been selected as her party’s Westminster candidate in East Belfast, where she famously took the seat from then DUP leader Peter Robinson in 2010.

Mrs Long, who until this week has been conspicuously absent from the airwaves, has been less candid than Mr Swann about the dilemma she finds herself in. The justice minister has a very strong chance of unseating incumbent Gavin Robinson, especially if the unionist vote is shredded, but it’s argued that an alternative Alliance candidate would face a much greater challenge.

Arguably, there’s a tendency to be more sympathetic to Mrs Long’s situation because she previously held the seat and also represents the constituency at Stormont. However, she too leaves herself vulnerable to suggestions that Alliance comes before her ministerial brief.

There’s also an outside chance that Education Minister Paul Givan will run in Lagan Valley, following Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation from the DUP last month. Again, while there are parallels with Robin Swann, it can’t be suggested that Mr Givan has contrived this situation for his own advantage and therefore the electorate may be more forgiving.

There are rules against double-jobbing but there is nothing to prevent Stormont ministers throwing their hats into the Westminster ring, so ultimately it’s for the parties to decide whether it’s a smart move or not. After that, it’s down to the electorate.