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Alban Maginness

Michelle O'Neill should follow Sir Keir Starmer's example and quit trying to score political points

Alban Maginness

New Labour leader won kudos for statesmanlike decision to work with Boris Johnson, writes Alban Maginness


Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer


Boris Johnson with his partner Carrie Symonds

Boris Johnson with his partner Carrie Symonds

POOL/AFP via Getty Images


Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

The shocking news that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been admitted to intensive care in St Thomas' Hospital in London as a result of coronavirus has produced an outpouring of good wishes for his speedy recovery from a wide range of politicians, not just on the Conservative benches but also from leading Labour and SNP MPs.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon - no fan of Johnson - expressed her sincere hope for his safe recovery. Sir Keir Starmer, who was convincingly elected as the new leader of the Labour Party last Saturday, described his hospital admission as "terribly sad news" and expressed his hope that the Prime Minister would recover.

Sympathy was also offered by a range of other politicians to his family and, in particular, to his fiancee Carrie Symonds, who is expecting their first child.

All of these positive and civilised reactions by Government and Opposition politicians to the serious illness of the most powerful political figure in Britain is comforting to a public who are fearful and worried in this time of great crisis.

This will do much to restore the faith of the people in politicians as they demonstrate goodwill and decency by showing care for an opponent laid low and in mortal danger from a killer disease.

The PM's critical illness is a sharp reminder, if one was needed, of the fragility of human life brought about by the savage impact of this worldwide pandemic.

It illustrates that, no matter how high you are in society, you still can fall victim to this pernicious virus. Even the great are not immune.

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It further reminds us that we have not yet reached the peak of this epidemic and that we all should remain sensitive to the need to exercise social distancing in our lives.

If the community observes social distancing then this attack on our community's health can be contained and, ultimately, defeated.

Social distancing is difficult and frustrating and goes against our ingrained sense of freedom in our lives.

However much we resent it, it is the only effective answer that we have to this powerful disease at the moment in time.

Sir Keir has had an unfortunate and strange beginning to his leadership of the Labour Party, being elected almost at the same time that the Prime Minister entered hospital for emergency treatment.

Indeed, his initial period of leadership could be eclipsed, media-wise, by exhaustive concentration on the pandemic.

Asserting his public profile at this critical time will be incredibly difficult for him to achieve.

Being leader of the Opposition at Westminster at a time of unimaginable crisis will be an uphill task.

However, his statesmanlike decision to "work together" with Mr Johnson and his Government to beat the pandemic has struck the right note. Nobody wants him beating up on the Tory administration at this time of extreme stress.

Perhaps Sinn Fein's gauche northern leader Michelle O'Neill could learn a lesson from Sir Keir by doing the same here and stop publicly attacking Health Minister Robin Swann, who is bravely attempting to defeat the Covid-19 threat.

He needs public support from his ministerial colleagues and any criticisms should be dealt with behind the scenes at the Executive table.

But things may not be all that bad for Sir Keir if and when the premier returns to office, particularly as Mr Johnson has had a lacklustre performance to date.

In this crisis he has fallen short of the decisive leadership that would be expected of a Prime Minister at a time of deep national trauma. The shine of winning a superb victory in the December general election and getting Brexit through has vanished.

He has lacked sure-footedness and sits uncomfortably in the middle of this unexpected and unprecedented political nightmare.

His leadership skills are already being questioned and, unless he pulls something extraordinary out of this continuing crisis on his return, his leadership will be in trouble once things revert to normality, whenever that may be.

Sir Keir is a barrister by profession and has great advocacy skills. As a successful Director of Public Prosecutions before he entered politics, he has had wide experience of public administration.

He comes across as a formidable political debater and more than a match for Mr Johnson.

He was also a human rights legal adviser to the Policing Board here in its early years, and, refreshingly, has direct personal knowledge of Northern Ireland.

He does, however, lack the charisma of Tony Blair, the most successful Labour leader ever.

Despite all of the criticisms of him, Blair won three general elections in a row.

Therefore, much could be learnt by Sir Keir from Mr Blair's extraordinary achievements as leader of the Labour Party.

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