Northern secretary ‘unable to intervene’ in health crisis

Julian Smith says he did not want to get into a ‘blame game’ with political parties

Handout photo of Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith at Stormont in Belfast as he hosted a summit to urge Stormont’s leaders to make a series of commitments to tackle Northern Ireland’s spiralling health service crisis. Photograph: Pacemaker/PA Wire

Handout photo of Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith at Stormont in Belfast as he hosted a summit to urge Stormont’s leaders to make a series of commitments to tackle Northern Ireland’s spiralling health service crisis. Photograph: Pacemaker/PA Wire

 

The North’s Secretary of State has said he does not have the power to intervene to solve Northern Ireland’s health crisis and instead urged its political parties to reach agreement and restore devolution.

A health summit took place on Thursday between Julian Smith and politicians as part of the talks process aimed at reinstating the North’s devolved government at Stormont.

On Wednesday more than 20,000 nurses and health workers went on strike across Northern Ireland as part of a dispute over pay and staffing levels, leading to the cancellation of more than 4,700 appointments.

Northern Ireland has had no health minister since the collapse of the Assembly in January 2017 following a row over a renewable heating scheme.

Politicians have insisted Mr Smith does have the authority to step in and resolve the issue, but he said on Thursday that he did not want to get into a “blame game” with them.

“I have explained previously that I don’t believe I have the power to intervene under the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

“Under that agreement that has provided stability to Northern Ireland, over the past decades, health was established as a devolved matter.

“And we’re prioritising health today in terms of the talks process. And I really, really hope that if we can get the devolved institutions back up and running, that is the most sustainable way to getting pay parity for the trade unions and for the workers that have been going on strike.”

Asked if the UK government would offer assistance to resolve the crisis, Mr Smith said he expected there would be “a number of requests, financial requests, and I’m already in touch with the treasury.

“The key thing is that party leaders here agree to go back into the Executive. “The UK Government stands ready to support that decision in any way we can.”

Members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland went on strike for the first time in their 103-year history on Wednesday, joined by members of Unison, Unite and NIPSA.

NHS nurses are paid less in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.

The permanent secretary at the North’s department of health Richard Pengelly - who is the senior civil servant in charge of the health service in the absence of a minister - has made an additional pay offer of just under £80m, which the department said would put the mean pay gap at around 1 per cent, keep Northern Ireland on track to meet a three-year UK-wide pay deal, and provide a projected pay increase of 3.1 per cent.

“In the absence of ministers,” he said, “this is the furthest I am able to go.”

This was rejected by the trade unions, who said it fell short of what they had asked for.

Industrial action is continuing, but not at the level of Wednesday’s strike. Further strikes are planned.

Sinn Féin’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, said the meeting was “constructive”.

“We discussed the serious challenges facing health and social care services and the need to address these issues including pay justice, safe staffing levels and the unacceptably long waiting lists.

“I made it clear, as I had done as minister for health, that additional funding is required from the British treasury to address these significant challenges.”

She also said it was unacceptable for the Secretary of State “to use workers’ legitimate demands for pay parity as a political football in current talks,” and said she had reiterated her party’s position to Mr Smith and the heads of the civil service that “they have the ability and authority to make funds available that would achieve pay justice for health and social care workers.”