WIP Class Intern, Jonny Elliott talks Politics, Leadership and Health and Social Care with NI Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Edwin Poots. What were you doing when you were my age?
What age are you?
I’m twenty-two, just finished uni now
At 22 I was working very hard on the family farm, probably 60/70 hours a week for very little dole. I was also engaged to get married when I was 22 and married when I was 23 and my first son was born when I was 24, so that was life for me at that time.
How did you get to where you are today?
It certainly wasn’t by design. I had decided when I was at school. I went to Wallace. I didn’t really like school that much; didn’t really fancy the idea of going to university; didn’t really fancy doing book work for the rest of my life. We had a decent enough farm at home, so I decided I was going to do farming. So that’s what I did and really enjoyed that for many years and still do enjoy working at it whenever I can.
My Dad was a Councillor for many years and when he took a stroke had to retire. I stood at the next election and got elected in 1997. I was elected to the NI Assembly in 1998 and was quite fortunate as I entered politics that things fell in place for me. I wouldn’t have imagined being in the Assembly in 1998. I was made Chair of a committee in 2000 and then the Assembly went through the period of suspension and was then recalled in 2007. After which I was elected as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, then did Minister for the Environment and then I became Minister for Health.
I think it’s because I’m a bolshie sort of a git who will actually get on with things and maybe not get too caught up with public opinion on some things! At times you just have to get on with it and show leadership and the public will actually come with you when they see that there is some logic to what you’re doing.
Yeah I think it’s certainly one of the trickiest Ministerial roles that we have today.
If you allow yourself to be dictated to by public opinion at that time you are destined for failure and the public deal with you at a later point for failing to give leadership. You have far more information to make decisions perhaps than people who are ringing the Nolan Show or whatever it happens to be so you need to apply yourself and not allow yourself to get distracted too much. We have specific people with very specific skills and information available to them, which they give to you and you have to make rational decisions. It may not always be something that the public like but the public will very often see the sense in it after it’s been implemented.
Who was the most influential person in your life and why?
I have a huge degree of respect for Ian Paisley. He gave me the opportunities to chair the committee in the first instance in the Assembly; he gave me the opportunity to be a Minister. He gave me the opportunities to prove myself. At a personal level I got to like him better the more I knew him. Certainly in his Christian life he had a Bible with him and would have taken every opportunity that he had to read it. He obviously lived a life that was very close to God, so I have huge respect for him on that side.
My auntie, who was fourteen when her mother died, raised my mum’s family of 9 children, so I have huge respect for her. Great Christian lady and went to be a Faith Mission pilgrim after she had all of that done. One of her brothers was FG Wilson, of the engineering company. He started off life collecting jute meal bags and taking them into Belfast to sell them again. He dealt in scrap and then had this engineering concept, so as he made a bit of money at the scrap business he developed the engineering concept as well and went on to create a business that now employs 3000 in Northern Ireland.
They’re all people who didn’t have silver spoons in their lives but were people that got down and applied themselves and scrapped their way up a bit. I suppose in some senses politically I’ve had to do that. I stood for election in 1993 and was defeated, stood for the Westminster election in 1997, not because I had any chance of winning but just to fly the flag for the Party and got well beaten. So you will get knocks in life where it can be tough at some points but you have to demonstrate that you have resilience and stamina and if you demonstrate that to people you will eventually get the opportunities and breaks.
If there was one thing that you could change about the Northern Irish political system, what would it be and why?
I think if we could get rid of a lot of the nonsense from it and just get on with making NI a better place. Even still in spite of all of the agreements and everything else people still go back to form very often. If you want to bring about equality, you create the opportunity for equality. Huge inequalities currently exist in NI; best means of dealing with those inequalities is actually create a more prosperous place. It’s not poverty but relative poverty I suppose. Create the jobs, create the educational opportunities and make people able to get themselves out of it, particularly the younger generation. I very much endorse a hand off culture as oppose to a hand out culture.
What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Northern Ireland
What you have achieved at this moment in life is demonstrated that you have a reasonable degree of intellect and an intellectual capacity and that will allow you to apply for jobs that others wont be able to apply for, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. It’s the end of the beginning as opposed to the beginning of the end. You should be congratulated for what they have achieved.
One of the things that I look at when I look at Northern Ireland is that most of the significant businessmen are not graduates. I explained about Freddie Wilson, Alan McClay wasn’t a graduate. There are a whole series of people who have went on to create a lot of jobs and a lot of wealth and prosperity and they haven’t been graduates. In saying that, it’s not something to value someone on by the amount of money they make as money is quite meaningless in many senses but nonetheless there are too many people that come out of university that get a comfortable job and a comfortable life and lack the aspiration or the drive in some senses. Sometimes those who come up through the hard way tend to have a greater hunger and I would love to see our young people who have all that ability in them to match that with a degree of entrepreneurial flair. I think if we could do that with more of our young graduates we’d actually be unstoppable. There is so much more that they could do for themselves and for society. I think people should aspire to excel in whatever they do, for example, Paddy Johnson or Robert Spence drastically reducing the numbers of people dying of cancer. They wont be multi-billionaires, but they’ve made a really big difference in what they’ve done. How can you use the skills that you have to make a difference for others as a result…
What are the most important decisions that you make as a leader in health and social care in Northern Ireland?
I think you look to the future and try to decide what sort of health and social care system do we want to be? First of all do we want to maintain what we have here – health service that is free at the point of need to everybody or do we want to go down the route of, for example, the USA or something in between. I actually think we should cherish what we have. The system that we have is something that works and is good. To keep that system we have to make decisions to make sure the system is fit for purpose. Changing methods of providing care – drugs used, surgical procedures. We need to preserve the ethos that came from Bevan.
Other aspects include the huge financial pressure and as a consequence the need for the best value for money. This is at the preventative and early interventional level. Going to hospital is a place of last resort, so we need to plough more resources into prevention if we want to make the health service survive. We just cannot afford to be applying 6% more funding to it each year. The service would start to crack at the seams unless something is done.
So do we need a system that is more proactive than reactive then?
Well, Harry burns was a very interesting guy, the CMO in Scotland. He was an army man, a practicing surgeon in Scotland. He realized that many of the people he was operating on, actually shouldn’t have been operated on. So he gave up being a surgeon to go into public health. He’s now CMO for Scotland. Northern Ireland’s public health is only worse than Glasgow; every other part of the UK is better. So there’s so much more that we can do – with smoking, alcohol and obesity. Taking a more holistic approach and educating them, all will make a huge difference.
What is the biggest challenge that you’ve faced to date and what were a few key things that you learned as a result?
Biggest challenge was dealing with the Pseudomonas outbreak and personally having to deal directly with parents and families of children who have died as a result. All are babies who were very very ill and were babies that a few years ago would have had virtually no chance of survival, but they had a chance of survival. For some of them at least their chance of survival was compromised by the Pseudomonas and by poor decision making on the part of some. To actually have to sit across the table and tell the parents that there may have been a possibility that your child may have not got Pseudomonas had things been done differently, and as a result your baby might not have died. That was a terrible experience and something that absolutely gutted me that we did fail those parents in that way. So I’m very keen that we get on top of that to make sure that we don’t have a similar situation in another year, or another five years. I certainly hope that is the case, but you can never make a system fool proof.
What key characteristics do you believe you possess that make you suited to your current position as Minister for Health?
I was brought up to be honest. I was never even good at telling lies. It’s not something that I can do, it’ll just come back to haunt you. It’s good to be open, forthright and honest with people and in most instances it’s something that people appreciate. Even in my political career it’s helped me to develop a degree of respect. When Alasdair McDonnell of SDLP was interviewed on Good Morning Ulster he commented that ‘Edwin Poots is a very honest fellow’. That’s how I’m described by someone who has different political viewpoints to myself. I think that’s an asset.
The ability to cut through a lot of nonsense and see what needs to be done and take the decision to do it and take on people on occasion who will be opposed to it, fighting your case, arguing your case, explaining to the public who you are about I think is an asset. I think if you are indecisive, I don’t think this is the place to be. I think that’s probably why I was asked to do it. I said I’m a balshie old git but you know, someone who’s actually prepared to take a decision, determined to see that decision through and will take a bit of flak in the process. I’ll hand as much back if and when it’s required and I think that’s all part of the process.
When you look back to your term of office in a few years time, what do you think will be the greatest success that you’ll look back on?
I think the Department of Health is a super tanker and was headed in the wrong direction and I think if I have slowly got it turned round and at least headed in the right direction that will be a huge success. I think the health service is something that is too important to fail and if it had been allowed to keep trundling along and people doing the same things, then waiting lists would have sky rocketed, modern treatments that are routinely carried out across the UK and Europe wouldn’t have been available in NI and as a consequence we could have had second class citizenship for people in Northern Ireland in terms of health; in some areas that’s already the case but we’re determined to alter that.