Michael McGimpsey’s disgraceful betrayal on the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin should not only be indicted for unworthy political motives but also for unwarranted abuse of both ministerial position and poorly managed budget procedures.
The compelling imperative for this investment, with significant commitments from the Irish government, has been well-amplified in the shocked and disgusted response of so many – and cancer patients in particular.
This unit would not only serve cancer patients in the greater North West on both sides of the border but also guarantee the coping capacity and performance standards of the Regional Cancer Centre at Belfast’s City Hospital into the future.
I am not just saying that Michael McGimpsey’s vindictive decision needs to be and can be reversed in the future. I would contend that the system should give this negative part of his Assembly statement no standing in terms of any actions to be taken or postponed by officials.
This is a regional priority, not just for the cross-border North West but right across the North. Its national importance is reflected in the Irish government’s “commitment” and the Northern Finance Minister’s “budget earmark.”
I know from my work in Westminster with Cancer Research UK they see this unit as a necessary development in the context of wider efforts to provide more satellite radiotherapy units not just to improve accessibility and treatment experiences for patients but to enhance research capacity with prospects for improving outcomes for everyone.
In all of these contexts, descending into an argument about whether or not this cruel and crass decision is sectarian might only distract from the shared, vital purposes and priorities which support this unit.
If a judge can find the Education Minister to have exercised an abuse of power in relation to how she was proposing to actually take forward schools’ capital investment in Omagh, we can certainly indict Michael McGimpsey for abuse of power in deliberately failing to take forward this vital capital project.
If the Finance Minister’s assurances about ring-fencing and “ear-marking” in the budget mean anything, then Michael McGimpsey and his department should not be able to put that money to any other purpose instead without the approval of the Minister or Department of Finance and Personnel.
It seems clear that there was no consultation sought or clearance given between Ministers; I have no evidence that the same is not true about officials in both departments.
Senior civil servants must know that that puts a fundamental question mark against the standing of the McGimpsey announcement.
Did they advise him of this? Have they alerted or consulted with other colleagues? And, when they could, did they seek any guidance from Ministers or the Head of the Civil Service?
In a Minister’s pledge of office under the Good Friday Agreement, one pledges “…to act in accordance with all decisions of the Executive Committee and Assembly.”
If the Executive’s agreed budget plan specifically included this unit and that was approved under the Assembly’s budget authority, then no one could conclude other than that the Health Minister is in clear breach of his pledge of office on that count.
In my own view, he has also breached another key part of the pledge of office – “to serve all of the people of Northern Ireland equally… to promote equality and prevent discrimination;” – but for their own reasons some would fail to share that conclusion.
If the Ministers and/or officials could seriously contend that the budget authorisation was not sufficiently clear and unambiguous to prevent the Minister’s choice, then that raises other questions about the quality of the long deliberations and decisions on the budget.
Either way, the decisive resolution to this issue should be an Assembly resolution which would be binding on a future Minister, a future Executive and their officials. Given all that has happened, no one can rely on hypothetical assurances about possible future Ministers or Executive make up. An unambiguous mandate can now only come from a categoric Assembly resolution.
If the cross-border engagement and commitments in respect of this vital unit had been framed under the full auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council, this would have further denied Michael McGimpsey the room to unilaterally subvert the project.
With the new Irish government and soon a new Assembly, there will be an opportunity and a duty to tune up the North-South machinery in the interests of all on this island – not least, but not only, those in border areas.