None. No experience in the Health Sector? Not a problem. If recent appointments are anything to go by however, you do have to be white, male, Unionist, and Protestant. Our track record of Health Ministers has been nothing short of abysmal, particularly in relation to abortion and on LGBT rights. With our new appointee, DUP MLA Simon Hamilton, it looks like we're hurtling merrily down exactly the same path as we always have.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but on many issues our devolved government has the power to vote on which UK laws it adopts. The Northern Ireland Assembly has continually failed to adopt the 1967 Abortion Act, which in practice allows any woman in the England, Wales, and Scotland to have a safe and legal abortion should she need one. For decades, their Northern Irish sisters have had little choice but to travel to England if they need an abortion. Indeed, a series of court rulings in the 1990s indicated that abortion is legal in Northern Ireland under the terms of the 1938 "Bourne Judgement", which ruled that a termination is permissible only if continuing with the pregnancy would leave a woman "a mental or physical wreck". Following these judgements, the law on abortion in Northern Ireland was said to be "so uncertain that it violates the standards of international human rights law". Nonetheless, the Northern Irish Assembly has continuously failed to provide the clarity which is desperately needed to bring practice into line with the law.
Religion has slithered and taken root in our health system and as a result, it seriously fails our population as a whole. It strangles the State's capacity to offer just, modern healthcare services and our most recent Health Ministers have done nothing other than cement our position firmly in the past. Edwin Poots, Health Minister from 2011-2014 is a creationist who rejects the theory of evolution. He is closely associated with the Caleb foundation, a creationist lobby set up in 2009 to promote law and government in line with biblical thinking. Those associated with the Caleb Foundation refer to themselves 'jokingly' as 'The Caleban'. As the Belfast Telegraph pointed out, where in the Middle East the Taliban seeks to enforce an ultra-hard-line version of Sharia law based upon its own interpretation of the Koran, those associated with the Caleb foundation promote a system of government in Northern Ireland where every law is measured against Biblical scripture. Poots is also the Health Minister who brought us enforcement of a 'Gay Blood Ban' despite a high court judge ruling that the decision was "infected by apparent bias", and who fought against the rights of LGBT people to adopt.
Jim Wells, Poots' successor and Health Minister from 2014-April 2015 stated his firm belief that his religion should influence his views in the Northern Irish Assembly, particularly in relation to abortion rights for women. This is was a less than remarkable starting point for those hoping he would take an unbiased stance on public health issues. During his career, he opposed abortion even in cases of rape and continued to support the gay blood ban enforced by Edwin Poots despite an ongoing legal appeal. To make matters worse, during a recent hustings event on 23 April 2015, Wells made the totally unfounded claim that; "You don't bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. The child is far more likely to be abused and neglected." As a member of the LGBT Community here in Northern Ireland I was unsurprised. Homophobic statements are commonplace from the DUP.
This brings us to our new appointee. What do we know about MLA Simon Hamilton? Not a lot. Has he got any experience in the Health sector? You must be joking. His best quality right now is that unlike other members of the DUP who were under consideration for the role, he hasn't made any outlandish statements on abortion or LGBT rights just yet. The onus is on him introduce positive changes if he wants to be remembered differently to the previous cohort of religious fanatics who have undertaken the role. As Justice Minister David Ford commented,
"During his first week in office, he can immediately bring an end to his Department's legal challenge on the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood and indicate his support for adoption by civil partners...Bringing in a new face will be meaningless if Simon Hamilton just continues with the same attitudes as his predecessors."
What I've learned is that it's dangerous to hang my hopes for equality on the actions or inactions of the DUP. I won't be holding my breath, but I'll have my fingers crossed.
This blog was written by Mary Hassan. Her views are entirely her own.