Northern Ireland

Stormont ministers accused of ‘sitting on their hands’

12 weeks since the institutions were restored there’s a growing frustration with the lack of action

First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly during a press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA (Liam McBurney/PA)

Stormont ministers have been accused of “sitting on their hands” since the assembly was restored as it emerged that a majority of departments have yet to agree what legislation they plan to table in the assembly.

Some three months after the institutions returned, and on the back of months of preparatory meetings beforehand with the head of the civil service, only the Department of Health has so far finalised its legislative programme.

While ministers have set out their priorities for the remainder of the mandate, including a reduction in carbon emissions, tougher hate crime laws, and transformation of Special Educational Needs provision, it is less clear when the corresponding policies will be implemented. First Minister Michelle O’Neill said earlier this month that the Programme for Government would “be in place for the summer”.

The assembly is due to rise for summer recess in ten weeks’ time, returning in early September, by which stage there will effectively be two-and-a-half years remaining of the current mandate, punctuated by the forthcoming Westminster election campaign.

In the weeks since the DUP ended its boycott of the institutions, MLAs have debated and voted on countless motions, such as those on childcare and hospital waiting lists, yet non has included any commitment to actually implement policy.

Two pieces of legislation have been passed since the assembly was restored – a Budget Bill and the postponement of scrapping hospital parking charges.

The Irish News last week asked each of the executive’s nine departments for their legislative programme.

Minister for Health Robin Swann voted against a budget agreed by his Executive colleagues
Health Minister Robin Swann. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY

Of those that responded, only the Department of Health provided any detail, with minister Robin Swann’s setting out plans for ensuring the north is covered by British government’s Tobacco and Vapes Bill, alongside legislation on safe staffing and adult protection, among other bills.

The health minister broke ranks last week, voting against the executive’s budget because he was unhappy with his allocation.

Responses from the departments overseeing economy, agriculture and environment, infrastructure, justice and education indicated that their respective legislative programmes were still under consideration.

Writing in The Irish News, Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole acknowledged that the new executive needs time “to bed in, establish relationships and strike a positive tone of working together”.

“But tone, imagery and empty motions cannot be a permanent substitute for delivery,” he said.

“People deserve delivery, and at a bare minimum they deserve to see a plan. They haven’t got one yet.”

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said it appeared the priorities set out by the executive parties in February had “already fallen by the wayside”.

“Their promises about fixing the health service, sorting out workers pay, delivering childcare and anti-poverty strategies, and tackling the pollution of Lough Neagh have disappeared like snow off a ditch,” he claimed.

The West Belfast MLA said assembly motions brought by the executive parties were “only for the optics while they’ve been sitting on their hands”.