Northern Ireland

The task ahead for Northern Ireland's new health minister

Jim Wells
Image caption Jim Wells announced his resignation as Northern Ireland health minister in April

A poisoned chalice or a coveted trophy? In less than a week, the job of Northern Ireland's health minister becomes vacant. But who would want it?

A high profile post, it is probably one of the most contentious roles in public life.

While it hardly attracts the largest of salaries, it could be the launching pad for a politician's career. On the other hand, it may not.

Former chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board John Compton has said whoever is next in line needs to be genuinely interested in the job and be prepared to take the flack that comes with it.

During his tenure, Mr Compton worked with several health ministers.

"They have to have a keen personal interest in the portfolio. They have to convince the public and other politicians that they believe in the plan and the plan is right, not just for the one health trust, but indeed, Northern Ireland."

Since 2007, there have been three health ministers from two different political parties. In 2007, the Ulster Unionist's Michael McGimpsey took over the brief he was succeeded by the DUP's Edwin Poots and, most recently, Jim Wells.

Image caption John Compton led the biggest reform of health services in Northern Ireland for decades

Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún held the office between 1999 and 2002 when the assembly was suspended and direct rule imposed.

None of the ministers left the post in a trail of glory. In fact, some were probably relieved to go - while the most recent felt obliged to resign.

So what qualities can help him or her shine in the role or fade into the political abyss?

According to Mr Compton, the job advert should be about finding someone with a "steely determination".

He is also adamant that the candidate has drive and nerves of steel.

"They must have a steely determination to see through their vision, because there will be times when there is lots and lots of pressure and vested interests pushing you left and right - but to survive they need to have a clear focus to make a change."

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Image caption Political consultant Brendan Mulgrew has been sharing his thoughts on who the next health minister will be

No matter who takes over as health minister, the office in-tray more or less stays the same.

Most pressing is Northern Ireland's abortion legislation and whether or not it will be amended.

Some of the main issues include: gay rights, introducing prescription charges to pay for specialist drugs, potential hospital closures, securing jobs and delivering on workforce planning, especially when it comes to doctors in hospitals and GPs.

Then there is dealing with unions and strike action as well as cross border health issues.

And, with an ageing population, what's next for residential care homes?

Without doubt, it is a massive brief that touches everyone's life and crosses over all other ministerial departments.

Split role

With that in mind, local political consultant Brendan Mulgrew has argued that the post should be filled by the same person for the lifetime of one assembly term.

That, according to Mr Mulgrew, would allow for some chance of achieving some sort of long-term strategy.

"Being politically adversarial is in our nature, it's in the DNA of our politicians so you often find that whoever holds the portfolio at one stage could, six months later, be on the other side launching attacks on a different health minister who is dealing with similar issues," he said.

"So, in order to actually achieve something, how about an agreement across the parties for one person to remain in the post for five years, the length of one assembly term, to try to actually get things done - to achieve something? That makes sense - but Northern Ireland probably isn't there yet."

A portfolio that stretches across health and social care and soaks up half of the entire budget is there an argument for the role being split?

Image caption Phillip Robinson believes a junior minister could be appointed to the Department of Health

Philip Robinson was a former special adviser to Michael McGimpsey when he was health minister.

"I think, looking to the future and the re-organisation of local government departments, there is a very clear case for the possibility of a junior minister to be appointed to the department to head up the areas that come under social services," he said.

"That includes children and family issues. By doing so, that gives a strong voice to those very important and critical services, but it will also allow the health minister to pay more particular attention to primary and secondary care, that is everything that is happening in the hospitals and GP services. "

Next week's appointment may be short-lived.

Following next year's assembly elections, there will be a department reshuffle with a different party and, yet again, a different minister at the helm.

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