Stormont is back, and it is highly revealing that Sinn Féin and the DUP both sidestepped the health portfolio.
During the assembly’s two years in the wilderness they rarely missed an opportunity to pontificate about how health and social care was their priority and that they would implement the disgracefully delayed (by the executive…) Bengoa reforms. While they were at it, they would also sort out the myriad pay, recruitment, retention and morale problems.
We are entitled to conclude that these pronouncements were hot air and pious nonsense.
If health and social care really was the most crucial issue facing Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin and the DUP would have been fighting to take on the department.
Instead, it has again fallen to the Ulster Unionists, a party whose own leader wasn’t convinced it should even be in the executive.
None of this suggests that any of the executive parties are truly serious about defusing the health timebomb.
The UUP deserves some credit for taking on the challenge, even if there is a heavy suspicion that it is motivated by the desire to boost the party’s low profile in a general election year.
If health and social care really was the most crucial issue facing Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin and the DUP would have been fighting to take on the department. Instead, it has again fallen to the Ulster Unionists, a party whose own leader wasn’t convinced it should even be in the executive
Robin Swann has been given the job for a second time. Mr Swann is also the party’s Westminster candidate for South Antrim, where he stands a good chance of toppling the DUP’s lacklustre Paul Girvan.
But it’s a decision that has caused dissent in the UUP: “We need a health minister with their full focus on the task at hand, not one eye on Westminster,” said its East Belfast MLA Andy Allen.
The episode doesn’t speak well of Doug Beattie’s leadership or UUP discipline, which is of the SDLP variety.
However, Mr Swann was perhaps the only MLA to emerge from the wreckage of the last assembly with his reputation enhanced.
As health minister, his compassionate and measured handling of the north’s Covid response meant that by the time the shutters came down at Stormont, he was widely regarded as the north’s most popular politician (certainly more popular than his party).
If the pandemic heaped pressure on the system - the tragedy of missed cancer diagnoses and spiralling waiting lists being but two examples of how dealing with Covid-19 distorted normal healthcare - then two years of senseless DUP boycott has brought it to breaking point.
As this newspaper has repeatedly said, health service transformation will remain elusive unless MLAs are willing to make – and own – the tough decisions necessary. The task obviously requires a fully committed minister. It is hard to see how Mr Swann can help cure our ailing health service and put up election posters at the same time. The UUP needs to rethink its decision.