Will Mike Nesbitt have his bluff called on Stormont health cuts? - Newton Emerson

It’s the week that was in the news, as observed by Irish News columnist Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Mike Nesbitt became health minister last week
New health minister Mike Nesbitt could have his bluff called about not implementing cuts demanded by the Stormont executive's budget (Liam McBurney/PA)

Before becoming health minister, UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt was his party’s representative on the Policing Board. Some other board members felt he had a tendency to lob in metaphorical hand grenades for no particular purpose.

He may have brought that style of politics to his new post. Nesbitt has issued a ministerial statement declaring “I will not be approving catastrophic cuts”, obliging the Department of Finance to remind him one minister cannot refuse to implement the budget. If they try to do so, their own officials and the executive can stop them.

Ironically, Nesbitt may have picked up notions to the contrary from the chief constable. Last December, Jon Boutcher told the Policing Board he would exceed his budget to give officers a 7 per cent pay award and “if I have to step into a position where I am breaching my accounting officer responsibilities and the Board and the Department of Justice decide they will have to sanction me, then we will get into that territory if we need to.”

The bluff worked and his budget was increased in March. However, the chief constable is not subject to executive oversight or the ministerial code.

This is not an auspicious start to Nesbitt’s tenure.


People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll speaking during proceedings at the Northern Ireland Assembly in Parliament Buildings, Stormont
People Before Profit leader Gerry Carroll speaking in the assembly (Liam McBurney/PA)

People Before Profit has raised the issue of private healthcare being used to tackle waiting lists. Leader Gerry Carroll has discovered £140 million has been spent on it over the past two years. He said this should be invested in the health service instead. Minister Mike Nesbitt replied that red flag procedures must be performed privately to save lives and there is a parallel strategy to increase investment where the health service is failing.

Carroll is correct that the private sector cannibalises the public sector, largely because both are competing for the same fixed pool of staff. Although £140m is less than 1 per cent of the health budget, spending it to effectively privatise the overtime of surgeons and consultants can have a massively disproportionate impact on the public system.

But what if private providers were required to contribute to the real cost of training their staff? Could both systems then start to complement each other?

These are about to become key questions in Britain, so Stormont can hardly avoid them. Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health minister, is determined to use private providers to support the NHS.


One dog was put down by gardai and several others were seized
A Garda Immigration Bureau officer has been stationed in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

A Garda Immigration Bureau officer has been stationed in Belfast to assist investigations into “abuse of the Common Travel Area”, Garda commissioner Drew Harris has confirmed to the Republic’s Police Authority.

This has caused some nationalist and unionist excitement, with the TUV saying Irish immigration policy should not be enforced within the UK.

Of course, the Common Travel Area is a joint UK-Ireland immigration policy, with long-standing police cooperation. If cross-border stationing of officers is a novelty, that is only true here. The UK has juxtaposed border controls with France, Belgium and the Netherlands, deploying officers to each other’s ports and railway stations.

Understandably, it has not been revealed exactly where the Garda is based or what their ‘investigations’ entail. But the only real oddity about the arrangement is that there is not also a PSNI officer in Dublin - as far as we know.


DUP leader Gavin Robinson said there should have been more ‘cautious realism’ over a deal which restored powersharing in NI
DUP leader Gavin Robinson said there should have been more ‘cautious realism’ over a deal which restored powersharing in NI (Jonathan McCambridge/PA)

DUP leader Gavin Robinson launched his party’s election campaign by admitting it had over-sold its January deal with the Conservatives to mitigate the Windsor Framework and restore devolution.

Some have interpreted this as Robinson re-opening the sea border row for electoral purposes, risking the stability of Stormont.

He has the opposite intention. The DUP leader is trying to stop unionist rivals re-opening the row during the election. By recanting untenable claims by his predecessor Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, such as “zero-checks, zero-paperwork”, Robinson can mount a more plausible defence of the deal, on the campaign trail and beyond. Whether this works is another matter.


Nursing chief Pat Cullen is standing in the general election for Sinn Féin in Fermanagh and South Tyrone
Nursing chief Pat Cullen is standing in the general election for Sinn Féin in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Abstentionism is still being discussed a week after Pat Cullen was selected for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, so it is worth pointing out where unionism really fits into the debate.

Unionists like to tease Sinn Féin about abstentionism because abstentionism is stupid. However, unionists would be the people who would least enjoy the policy coming to an end. Sinn Féin MPs would eclipse their unionist counterparts and be endlessly fawned over by Westminster’s political and media establishment. This is one of the reasons why abstentionism is stupid.


Alliance Party leader Naomi Long
Justice minister Naomi Long has not ruled out appealing a judgment on life-long anonymity for sex offence suspects (Liam McBurney/PA)

MLAs have clearly not learned a thing from the fiasco of their sexual offences legislation. Part of that law was struck down by Belfast High Court last week because its restrictions on press freedom were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The judge found there had been “no debate” at Stormont about the breach, despite it being glaringly obvious.

In the assembly this week, an SDLP motion called for a complete ban on so-called gay conversion therapy, including “religious, cultural or any other interventions”. It passed with Sinn Fein and Alliance support. The UUP abstained. The DUP and TUV raised the issue of religious freedom and most other parties equivocated on this point to some degree. However, nobody noted a complete ban on conversion practices would almost certainly breach convention rights on freedom of conscience and religion, freedom from discrimination, free expression, free association and privacy. Until that is fully confronted, this debate is grandstanding nonsense.


The Free Presbyterian Church has accused the Northern Ireland Football League of “discrimination” against evangelical Christians for scheduling 11 of the 12 clubs in its premiership to play on Sundays.

As well as the expected religious objections, a Church statement added: “There are many churches near premiership grounds and when there are matches taking place the grounds of these churches can be blocked with traffic.”

In fact, there are two Free Presbyterian churches beside the grounds in question, in South Belfast and Dungannon.

Let us now turn to Joshua 17:18: “Thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong.”