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Eilis O'Hanlon

Coronavirus crisis shows us how important it is to have people who can actually do things

Eilis O'Hanlon


Many politicians are being exposed, instead, for what they can't do - and discovering that an ability to talk is no substitute for action, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a visit to the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a visit to the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during a visit to the UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory

The news that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, a qualified doctor, is to spend one day a week working again in the health service as Ireland does battle with the coronavirus has been met with cynicism in some quarters.

Of course it has. Such are the times we live in. There are even some people who believe that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who's suffering from Covid-19, deliberately got so sick that he had to be taken to hospital over the weekend in order to boost Tory poll ratings. These people should be ignored for the fruit-and-nut cases that they are.

Far from being a PR exercise, the Irish leader's decision to return to front line medical duties is a timely reminder of what a huge value there is, in this age of uncertainty, in having practical, hands-on skills and how few of those at the top in modern politics have them, as a quick glance down the list of ministers at Stormont will attest.

First Minister Arlene Foster is a law graduate. Michelle O'Neill, the Deputy First Minister, has spent her whole life in politics, save for a brief period training to be a bookkeeper. Finance Minister Conor Murphy... well, we all know what he used to do.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds is a former history and English teacher. Nichola Mallon, who's in charge of infrastructure, studied politics and economics. Health Minister Robin Swann has a certificate in management. Education Minister Peter Weir is yet another lawyer.

Right now they deserve everyone's full support for tirelessly working to keep Northern Ireland as safe as possible, even the ones who are self-indulgently questioning their fellow ministers' commitment to the same, shared goal.

Most of those who serve on the Executive probably wouldn't make the cut

I'm just saying that, if they ever were stranded on a lifeboat with a group of fellow castaways and the less-useful members had to jump overboard to give the others a better chance of survival, then most of those who serve on the Executive probably wouldn't make the cut.

There are many things needed in a crisis, but being a former borough councillor or lord mayor probably isn't one of them.

There are some exceptions to the rule, it should be said. Edwin Poots, the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, is a farmer. His skills would be essential once the people on that imaginary lifeboat found a desert island on which to land.

Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long is a qualified structural engineer. She should also be first in line for one of the lifejackets.

Rarely, though, do politicians have what you'd call practical skills that could be transferred into the real world. That goes for those on the national stage, too. Boris Johnson is a former journalist. So is Michael Gove, the current Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (whatever that is).

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has a BA in jurisprudence. Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was something to do with commercial law before entering politics.

It would also be unfair to accuse them all of living in a bubble of privilege

Chancellor Rishi Sunak worked in the City of London as a hedge fund manager, which does have a connection with his current role, but probably wouldn't be much use in the early days on that hypothetical desert island.

Again, that's not to knock them. They have their jobs to do. While a startling number of Cabinet members are multi-millionaires, it would also be unfair to accuse them all of living in a bubble of privilege.

Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, is a former captain with the Scots Guards. The chief whip used to be a dairy farmer.

Still, the days when a man such as Aneurin Bevan could rise from working in the Welsh coal mines to become Prime Minister are long gone.

His latest successor as Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, is already a knight of the realm and, yes, another barrister.

Most of us at the moment are in the same position. We may not be Jacob Rees-Mogg, with an estimated personal fortune from various investments of over £100m, but we're spending the lockdown wondering if what we do is all that useful at a time when the normal world has ground to a halt and the definition of an "essential worker" has ruthlessly separated the sheep from the goats.

Doctors and nurses are keeping us alive. Supermarkets are keeping us fed. The police are on the streets 24/7 to ensure public order is maintained.

If there's one thing we should take from this crisis, it's that the people who can actually do things are invaluable.

Our homes are ticking over thanks to oil, gas, electricity and sewage workers still being at work. Charity workers are helping those who fall through the net.

If there's one thing we should take from this crisis, it's that the people who can actually do things are invaluable.

There are also many people stuck at home, who are using their own money and time to make much-needed personal protection equipment, including face masks using 3D printers and donating it to hospitals.

Thousands of others have been enlisted into making scrubs for nurses so that they don't have to wear the paper clothing currently being provided by many NHS trusts as part of a campaign organised online by an A&E nurse.

It will never be enough to plug the gap. The shipment of five million PPE units which arrived in Northern Ireland yesterday will, fingers crossed, ultimately be what makes the difference; but at least ordinary people are doing what they can.

Many politicians are being exposed, instead, for what they can't do and discovering that an ability to talk is no substitute for action.

Increasingly our rulers have become a class of their own, separated from ordinary people

It goes back to the perennial argument about who we really need at the top in politics - those who have some real-world experience, or those who've spent their entire working lives sitting on committees and in think tanks, going to endless meetings, making speeches.

Increasingly our rulers have become a class of their own, separated from ordinary people.

Ireland's young Health Minister Simon Harris never even finished his degree in journalism and French before switching to full-time politics. He was first elected to the Dail when in his mid-20s.

Harris has received plenty of praise for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but is it really healthy to spend decades in that narrow world?

Perhaps if politicians mixed a bit more with normal people they wouldn't have been so naive as to think the PPE and coronavirus testing kits coming from China would be up to scratch.

Years of buying things on eBay have taught most of us to be wary of ordering stuff from Chinese sellers, because it doesn't exactly come with Kitemarks.

A degree in law is all very well, but some cop on is worth having, too.

Belfast Telegraph