Northern Ireland news

'Straight talking' Poots mired in controversy as health minister - while trying to weed out bureaucracy

Health minister Edwin Poots in an interview with The Irish News a week before he left the post in September 2014. Picture Mal McCann
Seanin Graham

THE only interview I was ever granted with Edwin Poots came a week before his post as health minister unexpectedly ended in September 2014.

Its timing explained his willingness to openly slate a vast, bureaucratic wing of the NHS while ignoring a press officer's attempts to jump in and tone things down.

Frustrated with budget cuts to the frontline, the outgoing health minister that day called out the £25 million worth of administrative wages at the Health and Social Care Board - knowing full well the damage it would do.

The Lagan Valley MLA ultimately sealed the organisation's fate by authorising the independent Donaldson review - which recommended its dismantling alongside an entire overhaul of the north's health service management.

The many column inches devoted to Mr Poots in recent days since announcing his running for DUP leader have singled out his extreme conservatism, most notably on abortion and in his opposition to gay men donating blood.

There is no doubt that during his three-year tenure as health minister a 'chill factor' emerged after he agreed draconian measures for medics who breached strict guidelines on terminations - including a 10-year jail sentence.

It was also during this period that a drip-feed of high level NHS leaks began, which led to a Cabinet Office whistleblower inquiry into the disclosure of confidential documents to this newspaper on historic abuse at the former Lissue children's psychiatric hospital, which was in his Lisburn constituency.

As health minister, Mr Poots insisted the Whitehall inquiry wasn't a 'witch-hunt' and tried to soften the blow by introducing strengthened whistleblower legislation.

Another side of the often austere minister surfaced however, as he delivered an emotional address on the Assembly floor on how his late brother suffered from severe learning disabilities and had been in care since the age of five.

In 2018, he fought back tears as he revealed he visited Muckamore Abbey Hospital "over 1,000 times", which is now at the centre of a major abuse scandal, and where his brother was a patient.

Meanwhile, despite agreeing cuts to the student nursing budget, he signed off on a critically important 'safe staffing' nursing policy before he left office. This is still waiting to be passed into law and is central to preventing future nursing strikes.

In the final weeks overseeing the health ministry, there were accusations of Mr Poots doing 'solo-runs' - a continuing feature of his political career.

As one veteran politician from an opposition party put it last night: "He is straight talking and can be single-minded if he feels strongly about something. But he can also be pragmatic".

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