Northern Ireland

Robin Swann: Who is Northern Ireland’s health minister?

Robin Swann was health minister during the Covid-19 pandemic
Robin Swann was previously health minister during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

RETURNING for his second spell as Northern Ireland’s Health Minister, the Ulster Unionist Party’s Robin Swann (52) has been largely well-regarded in the role after serving during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Negotiating the first pay deal for nurses after the New Decade New Approach in January 2020, he has again put pay issues for health workers at the top of his agenda for 2024.

North Antrim MLA for the UUP

Growing up and still living in Kells, Co Antrim, Mr Swann said he suffered chronic asthma as a child after spending his early years in a damp farm house.

While teased at school for his height, 5ft 3in, he has said it has never been an issue that bothered him.

Married to Jennifer and dad to two children

Meeting his wife Jennifer while playing in a pipe band with the Young Farmers’ Club, the couple have two children.

Mr Swann has spoken out about the health difficulties his son faced after being born with a congenital heart defect.

First elected as MLA for North Antrim in 2011, he succeeded Mike Nesbitt as party leader in 2017 before stepping down two years later to spend more time with his family.

This was short-lived as the previous Stormont hiatus between 2017-20, where Sinn Féin had collapsed power sharing, brought with it the chance for a seat at the Executive table.

First term as Health Minister for Northern Ireland during the Covid pandemic (2020-22)

Badly needed healthcare reform inevitably took a backseat as the coronavirus pandemic upended society, but Mr Swann’s level-headed demeanour during the crisis was widely praised.

Other advances during his first term included introducing Dáithí's Law on organ donation in 2021, eventually implemented by Westminster two years later.

Appearing at the UK Covid-19 inquiry in 2023, Mr Swann later reflected that years of neglect of Northern Ireland’s health service had hindered the ability to respond.

He added that stop-start politics and Stormont collapses since 2017 meant opportunities were lost to implement health reforms set out in the 2016 Bengoa report, and that consistently working with a one-year budget prevented meaningful reform.

While the Ulster Unionist Party has steadily declined in popularity, Mr Swann’s pandemic record still enabled him to top the poll in North Antrim in the 2020 Assembly elections.

Controversy over plans to stand as MP for South Antrim

Given the often crushing expectations of the health portfolio, one that the DUP and Sinn Féin both avoided, there was fresh controversy last month when Mr Swann said he would contest the South Antrim seat in the next Westminster election.

Robin Swann's widely praised performance as health minister did not translate into an avalanche of votes for the UUP
Robin Swann's widely praised performance as health minister during the pandemic saw him top the poll in North Antrim in the 2022 Assembly election despite the Ulster Unionist Party losing ground elsewhere.

His party colleague, East Belfast MLA Andy Allen, did not hide his frustration and said it would be “unforgivable” for a minister for health to split his focus between Stormont and campaigning for a Westminster election.

Party leader Doug Beattie later downplayed this as “overspilled passion” and that Mr Swann still had “both eyes focused on being minister for health”.

Mr Beattie later said it was possible that an alternative candidate for South Antrim would be found.

Pay claim for health workers

After multiple health strikes, including a massive day of industrial action over pay in January 2024, Mr Swann has said dealing with pay is his “immediate priority”.

Earlier this month he wrote to the trade unions for early discussions.

“Staff are the bedrock of the health service and they are entitled to proper remuneration for the vital work they do,” he said, adding that he was “honoured and humbled” to return to his role.

“We do not have a minute to waste given the scale of the issues facing services. The pressures across all parts of the system have built up over many years and cannot be quickly or simply fixed,” he said.

“However, I am convinced that a way forward is achievable through investment, improved productivity and efficiency, and changing how we organise some services.

“I am very conscious of the toll the current pressures and service shortfalls are taking on staff and patients.”

There is also huge interest on what share of Northern Ireland’s £3.3bn budget will be allocated to Mr Swann as he seeks to relieve pressure on services.

“An ailing health service is not just bad for patients and staff – it also impacts heavily on society as a whole,” he said.

“Debilitating delays for treatment and care stop people playing their full part in their local community and in the workplace.

“Improving access to health and social care has to be an absolute priority for government here.”