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Eilis O'Hanlon

If devolution is to mean anything, it must involve forging an approach to Covid-19 which is tailored to Northern Ireland's needs

Eilis O'Hanlon


Flexibility over the speed at which Northern Ireland exits lockdown threatens no one's unionism or nationalism, says Eilis O'Hanlon

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Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill at a Stormont press briefing

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill at a Stormont press briefing

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Boris Johnson addresses the nation on Sunday night

Boris Johnson addresses the nation on Sunday night

10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill at a Stormont press briefing

What do you do when the Prime Minister to whom you’ve pinned your colours starts doing things that risk making you unpopular among your own voters if you follow him too closely?

That’s the dilemma currently facing First Minister Arlene Foster, as the UK-wide lockdown strategy starts to unravel and the leaders of the three devolved nations attempt to distance themselves from the latest measures being pushed forward by Boris Johnson.

In his defence, some of the confusion which critics of the Westminster Government claim to be feeling right now over the new plan to ease the lockdown, while keeping the virus suppressed, has been a bit over the top.

“Stay alert” is a truly dreadful slogan and there could definitely have been more clarity from the Prime Minister when he addressed the nation on Sunday. It was all rather bland and laced with waffle.

But Boris did say he’d be setting out more details in the House of Commons the next day. Could his enemies not have waited a few hours before tearing their hair out?

By mid afternoon yesterday, the Government had published a 60-page guide to when and how varying sectors of the economy and society are expected to return to normal. It looks broadly similar to plans adopted in other countries.

Some of the finer points do need to be thrashed out, but what happened to using some old-fashioned common sense? Too many people seem intent on condemning the Government for not telling them what they should be doing every minute of the day.

For now, the Northern Ireland Executive, along with other devolved governments in the UK, has decided to stick with the original “Stay at home, save lives” message and Stormont ministers will be unveiling their own, slower road map to recovery today.

It makes sense to remain cautious here, because our rate of infection is still, worryingly, above that in some parts of England, whose population density is almost double.

Unfortunately, that sensible, non-ideological approach — aligning with London where it makes sense to do so and diverging when unique local factors mean the UK-wide strategy doesn’t quite fit our needs — seems to have been leapt on by the usual suspects to suggest that the integrity of the UK itself is threatened by constituent parts of the nation state adopting slightly different measures.

It’s never comfortable for a unionist leader to be publicly at odds with the Prime Minister — even if, for most of the DUP’s history, Rev Ian Paisley was at loggerheads with each and every occupant of Downing Street.

But it’s not as if they haven’t had to draw a line in the sand between themselves and Tory high command before. That was most obvious with Brexit.

Boris Johnson’s determination to “Get Brexit Done” was more to the DUP’s liking than Theresa May’s dilly-dallying on the issue; but that warmth soon soured when he was willing to think the unthinkable in terms of allowing a temporary customs border in the Irish Sea during transition.

Rather than being realistic by accepting that Northern Ireland, as the only part of the UK which would have a land border with the EU after Brexit, might need some special arrangements, the DUP made no bones of how angry they were about it.

If they can split with Number 10 on Brexit, then there’s no reason why taking a longer, more winding road to ending the lockdown should provoke an existential political crisis either.

There is a danger that nationalists will use any deviations in approach to prise the UK apart, not least by painting Boris Johnson as the Prime Minister of England, rather than the UK as a whole.

The separatist government in Scotland and the Labour administration in Wales are already exploiting the crisis in that opportunistic way.

Many wishful thinkers on this side of the Irish Sea seem intent on doing the same, as if constantly hoping that unionists will wake up one day and suddenly realise they don’t want to be tied to Britain after all.

Even independent unionist Jim Allister is making mischief by asking if devolved governments who are rejecting the advice of central government will also be turning down the money from London to pay furloughed workers. It’s important not to encourage that kind of monkey business by making too much of small variances between Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and London.

It speaks to a very crude notion of the nation state and the role of devolved regions within it.

Parties in Northern Ireland just need to trust devolution more. Too many local politicians still see their identities as dependent on forces from outside.

They either want to follow London, in the DUP’s case, or Dublin, in Sinn Fein’s. Do they really have so little confidence in their own political distinctiveness?

If devolution is to mean anything, it must involve forging an approach in Belfast which is tailored specifically to Northern Ireland’s requirements. Flexibility threatens no one’s unionism or nationalism.

To be fair, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill have made efforts in recent weeks to overcome past disagreements around the best way to fight Covid-19 and present a more united front; and they’ll need to be equally disciplined in the days to come.

The economy is being devastated. We’re slightly less reliant on the private sector here, for well-trodden historical reasons, but the figures for manufacturing, construction and the service industries look grim all the same.

It’s all very well rejecting London’s “Stay Alert” slogan for now, but at some point the lockdown in Northern Ireland will also have to be eased and the Executive will need to find an effective way to communicate that new message, or risk being accused of sowing confusion themselves.

Thankfully, Boris Johnson is a pragmatist. No doubt, he would have liked the four parts of the UK to move to the next phase in tandem, but there’s no evidence that he’s a politician who bears grudges.

Whatever disappointment he might feel at being unable to rely on Arlene Foster’s support on this issue, it’s unlikely to damage the long-term relationship unionists wish to build with Downing Street.

After all, that 60-page plan for coming out of lockdown accepts that certain parts of England itself could ease up on restrictions sooner than others, so why shouldn’t Northern Ireland do likewise?

Come to think of it, why shouldn’t North Antrim, to name just one place, also not unlock quicker than Belfast, depending on local circumstances? That’s what’s happening right now across Spain.

Recognising that the unique conditions in one area demand specially tailored approaches only threatens the constitutional unity of a country if you let it.

If unionists play their cards wisely, it might even strengthen it.

Belfast Telegraph