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Eilis O'Hanlon

Coronavirus: New dawn at Stormont didn't last too long as 'united' approach sunk by the politicisation of Covid-19 crisis

Eilis O'Hanlon


Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

That didn't last long, did it? On Thursday both the DUP and Sinn Fein were on the same page when it came to following the Chief Medical Officer's advice that schools should not be closed yet in Northern Ireland to deal with the coronavirus.

By yesterday morning Sinn Fein had torn out the page, ripped it up, and replaced it with a hastily scribbled one of their own demanding that schools be closed "now".

It's open to speculation what happened between Thursday early evening and Friday morning to make Michelle O'Neill switch position so dramatically. But what's beyond doubt is that the biggest change to occur in those brief hours was the shattering of trust that had started to build, not just between parties at Stormont but in the wider community, hopeful that there were some issues so serious that they would transcend the sectarian divide.

In being prepared to stand by the Executive in its collective approach to the virus, rather than following the lead of Sinn Fein in the Republic, or whoever might actually be in charge of the republican movement, it seemed that O'Neill was putting her duty as Deputy First Minister ahead of her role as deputy leader of Sinn Fein. It was a praiseworthy move that boded well for the future.

Suddenly, hours after saying "we are being guided by the medical science", the most unhelpful outcome of all had come to pass, namely the politicisation of Covid-19.

The immediate closure of schools may turn out to be the right thing to do; many countries have shut down schools and colleges, and there are plenty of virologists urging similar action in the UK. It also does make sense to take an all-island approach to the problem. What's troubling is the Sinn Fein deputy leader's explanation that she changed tack "on the back of public concern that is clearly there".

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People are worried, but throwing out the advice of all the medical experts consulted by the Executive without adequate scientific explanation to the contrary can only add to the fear and confusion.

That Sinn Fein made such a dramatic turnaround in apparent defiance of fellow members of the Northern Ireland Executive, including Health Minister Robin Swann, is equally disquieting for the future of power-sharing.

This is not what people expected when the Executive reformed. Back in January, at that special Saturday sitting of the Assembly, O'Neill pledged to "bring people together" and Arlene Foster to "seek common ground".

Within a matter of weeks that approach has been unilaterally jettisoned by one party for what looks like partisan and populist motives. How are other parties expected to trust Sinn Fein when, within weeks, they abandoned collective responsibility and went off on a solo run, leaving their ministerial colleagues from other parties to pick up the pieces?

Republicans cannot complain if people decide that, in the midst of a serious public health crisis, their obsession with pushing an all-Ireland agenda has once again prevailed over the need to show a united front in Northern Ireland.

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