STORMONT ROW – “THIS WAS A HIT JOB BY SINN FEIN” – By Brian Rowan 

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That opening thought comes from a unionist source, and is a reference to Michelle O’Neill’s public criticism of Health Minister Robin Swann and his department in a BBC interview with Mark Carruthers last Thursday.

The deputy first minister said, “slavishly following the Boris Johnson model, which has been too slow to act, has meant that we’re not as prepared as we could be at this moment in time”.

The comments were made with the peak in this first phase of Coronavirus expected soon.

There were tweets within the hour, signalling that First Minister Arlene Foster would be on the Good Morning Ulster programme the following morning.

The Executive would also meet on Friday, and some expected an escalation – some further fallout from that Thursday interview on ‘The View’.

It did not happen.

“NOTHING EXPLOSIVE”

Arlene Foster made clear that she has confidence in Robin Swann and, in measured words and sentences, said nothing to exacerbate or add to a bad situation.

“I think that set a tone when Arlene didn’t lose the rag,” a source commented.

Hours later, the Executive met – no cross words, no sparks flying; nothing explosive.

One source described it as “dull”; not meaning boring, but focused on questions and answers and detail and on getting clarity on personal protection equipment and testing.

“We got what we all were asking for – detailed information from the Department of Health,” one source commented. “That was resolved on Friday when we finally got tables…papers tabled on Friday which allowed us to see what he [Robin Swann] has been seeing.”

One source summarised that information in these words: “Plenty of everything, except masks.”

The Health Minister shared some of that detail in a news conference afterwards.

From statement by Robin Swann

From statement by Robin Swann

He did not get involved in the political row:

“Robin is not going there,” a unionist source commented, but that doesn’t mean there is not anger:

“This was a hit-job by Sinn Fein right from the start,” my source added.

Robin Swann also focused on the advice on social distancing, washing hands and that stay home message; the things that are considered vital in trying to slow this virus down and curtailing its spread and deadly damage.

So, what has been the lesson of these past few days.

It is this; that perhaps – after those three years in limbo – our politics is now more resilient than we think.

NEVER WASTE A CRISIS

There are those who clearly think that Sinn Fein has been at it in recent days – that this is about the border and British rule: “The Shinners like to be in government and opposition at the same time – never waste a crisis.”

These are the thoughts of one close observer, but others disagree.

Talk of Sinn Fein versus the other four parties represented on the Executive is dismissed by an insider.

I am told that Naomi Long, Nichola Mallon and Edwin Poots have also been raising questions and concerns about testing and equipment.

On this website a few days ago, I wrote that Michelle O’Neill was right to voice her concerns publicly. I still believe that to be case.

This is life and death – too serious for people to stay silent.

Covid-19 has created a world war of sorts. So, we should expect planning and operational arguments.

One of the problems in the ten years of government between 2007 and 2017 was that people bite their tongues in an effort to sustain and save the political institutions at Stormont; that is until RHI became a tipping point.

Was the deputy first minister right to personalise and focus her comments on Robin Swann? Well, that is another question.

“This is where Michelle crossed the line,” an insider commented.

That insider believes that the decisions by the first minister and health minister not to react on Friday “helped stabilise things” – this, and that “Sinn Fein had its wings clipped”; a reference to the ‘joint-order’ for personal protection equipment from China that failed to deliver.

“THIS IS THE UNKNOWN”

Look at how the headlines have turned on Boris Johnson in recent days – “everyone at war” and a “blame game” already underway.

Here, we can get too excited about political rows.

There cannot at all times and in all circumstances be a united front. If there are differences and concerns, then we need to hear them.

Covid-19 has taken us all into the darkness and fear of the unknown and politicians don’t have all the answers. Nor should we expect that they should.

As this virus moves, where to dig the battle trenches and with what tools and equipment to fight will be different decisions on different days.

In conversation with William Crawley on Friday, I said the important question is how the politicians now step back from what is being said and argued publicly and start to address some of the questions – whether about personal protection equipment or testing.

That began to happen in Friday’s Executive meeting; a calmer conversation than expected because Arlene Foster and Robin Swann didn’t step into the row.

There is more knowledge now about equipment supplies, how long they will last and what will be needed and when on the different fronts of this war.

So, the row has produced some clarity.

I repeat again what I wrote here a few days ago; that in this fight – even with a border – we are not living in two separate places.

Covid-19 is not going to pause on either side of the line.

This is not a green versus orange comment or argument; it is a statement that all of us on this island are facing an enemy the likes of which we have never known.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

15 Comments

    • Indeed Peter. SF get a pat on the back for lying, causing mayhem & slagging off another member of the executive for over a week. It seems that SF can create chaos have the situation relegated to a north south issue. And we are all supposed to thank them for the chaos & move on.

      No mention of O’Neill or Murphy apologising to Swann. Its move along now, nothing to see here.

      • Well done to the first minister & the health minister for not getting embroiled in this row. The deputy first minister had the authority to ask the question but should it not have been done around a table were he had the opportunity to defend himself.
        I find it strange though that the deputy first minister is quick to publicly blame the health minister on the BBC but when they and other media outlets asked for the majority in the local leadership election everyone was silent

  1. The situation on testing by SF was that the RoI were testing, testing, testing in line with Who recommendations. However, the RoI redefined that to a more focused testing regime as detailed in the BBC 25 March article “The Republic of Ireland is to change the criteria for testing for Covid-19 after its chief medical officer said the net had been cast “too widely”. Dr Tony Holohan said patients will have to display two major symptoms rather than one before they are tested. They will have to have a fever and at least one other sign of a respiratory problem”. SO it was no longer test, test test, it was test those who show 2 symptoms.

    On PPE, the question you didn’t ask therefore is still not answered is when did O’Neill know about Murphy’s non delivery of PPE from the south?

    He knew on Thursday afternoon that the PPE from the RoI was not going to be supplied.
    Why did she not know on Thursday night? If she did know why didn’t she mention this on the View? If she didn’t know why didn’t Murphy inform her before going on the View? Given that we know the time lines her attack health minister Swann should not have taken place. And were is Mr Swann’s apology?

    As for the bigger picture, I see the Unionists have been doing what I have been advocating for some time. Play with a straight bat in the executive. Then the public can see the only people playing the border game at every opportunity is SF.

    Its good to here that Alliance & the SDLP had concerns as did Poots according to you. However, its even better that they never made this an issue about the North & South. However that can’t be said of SF, who went straight to the border and made it a border issue. No Surprise there.

    In the RoI even they are getting pissed off with the antics of SF and Mary Lou’s asinine comments at the weekend.

    So if you could get a answer to these questions:
    When did O’Neill know about Murphy’s non delivery?
    If she did know before the interview on the View why did she continue to attack Minister Swann?
    If she didn’t know why not?
    If she didn’t know why did Murphy not tell her?

    • SFIRA have sat on the sidelines sniping and achieving absolutely nothing. When put to the test Murphy messed it up. O’Neill has done nothing but try and undermine the efforts of others making a genuine effort. Appears SF supporters think this behaviour is ok. Time to put SF to the test.

  2. Murphy and O’Neil knew what politics were being played when they knew the ROI had an order arriving from China. Knowing of the shortage in Britain, S/F were trying to get the ROI’S supply to make them out to be the saviours.

  3. SFIRA have sat on the sidelines sniping and achieving absolutely nothing. When put to the test Murphy messed it up. O’Neill has done nothing but try and undermine the efforts of others making a genuine effort. Appears SF supporters think this behaviour is ok. Time to put SF to the test.

  4. Murphy trying to be smart,crafty wee man in a big suit-
    pulling a fast one &
    It back fired.
    Murphy continues to be the top dog.
    Michelle is just a puppet.
    Murphy is a professional nasty piece of stuf
    Professional liar.
    He should be sacked.
    Stormomt needs to go.
    Direct rule welcomed until Normality is restored.
    Dysfunctional politics dysfunctional untrustworthy people.
    Shameless hypocrites ruthlessness selfish people
    Terrorists terrorised communities past now controlling government.

  5. MON attack on Swann was clearly partisan. As you have said Mallon, Long and Poots raised questions in the Executive without the histrionics of O’Neill.
    Not much to say about the Murphy PPE fiasco

  6. IRA SF put their narrow-minded politics and aspirations for their mythical “UI” over people’s lives, simple!

    Then again they murdered and maimed over 50,000 during their campaign of genocide for the mythical “UI” too, so we shouldn’t be really that surprised!

    • Genocide? Pot calling the kettle black. No?
      Do you not know the history of the cruel inhumane suffering inflicted on the Irish during hudreds of years of British rule??

  7. Swann didn’t come back at Michelle’s observation because he knew, as did the dogs on the street, that she was 100% correct. It took someone to highlight the terrible job being done by what can only be described as an incompetent ass. Foster knew to keep quiet also as to her horror she knows the result of sucking at the blank Westminster tit.

  8. Mr Brian Hogg on

    Michelle was Health Minister in 2016 and said NI Health Service was in crisis but felt no shame in taking 3yrs on nearly full pay. Meanwhile Health Service carried on without leadership. Stormont return’s after 3yrs Health strike to sort something highlighted 3yrs prior sorted then World Pandemic. Surely the whole executive should be pulling together not point scoring let’s see true leadership at this troubled time.

  9. Mr Brian Hogg on

    Michelle was Health Minister in 2016 and said NI Health Service was in crisis but felt no shame in taking 3yrs on nearly full pay. Meanwhile Health Service carried on without leadership. Stormont return’s after 3yrs Health strike to sort something highlighted 3yrs prior sorted then World Pandemic. Surely the whole executive should be pulling together not point scoring let’s see true leadership at this troubled time.

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