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Eilis O'Hanlon

The harm caused by weaponising coronavirus crisis may badly damage Stormont Executive

Eilis O'Hanlon


Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd (Brian Lawless/PA)

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd (Brian Lawless/PA)

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd (Brian Lawless/PA)

It might be utterly predictable, but it's still odd to see all the holier than thou people who were foaming at the mouth when Arlene Foster referred to republicans as "crocodiles" now lining up to defend Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd after he called the Prime Minister and those around him in Downing Street "a shire of b******s" for their handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Obviously it was on Twitter. That's where most of the self-righteous rage is to be found these days.

As a former Stormont Education Minister, Mr O'Dowd should probably know better than to join in, but it could be argued that it's better to see these people for what they are rather than hiding it. The odd intemperate outburst might even be forgiveable right now. People don't know what the future holds.

Everyone is worried for sick and elderly loved ones. When the British Government seems to be taking a different approach to other countries it's bound to cause concern, and the border obviously complicates matters further.

Crazy conspiracy theories about Boris engaging in a "twisted medical experiment", as O'Dowd sensationally put it, should be treated with scorn, but there's nothing wrong with questioning the official approach.

It doesn't bode well for future good governance, though, that the political discourse around Covid-19 deteriorated so quickly into ill-tempered partisanship. Republicans might be able to get away with saying these things about Boris Johnson. He's not from here, so it's easy to pretend that attacks on him can be quarantined off from local sensitivities. It's not that simple, unfortunately.

If this is what they're prepared to say publicly about those in London who take a different view from Sinn Fein, what are they thinking and saying privately about their colleagues in the Executive who are following the same medical and scientific advice as the Prime Minister? Sinn Fein wouldn't dare to accuse the First Minister of being one of the "shire of b******s" who is playing games with people's lives, because that would be outrageous. But that doesn't mean they're not thinking it.

One only needs to search for the DUP's leader name on social media to see what disgusting things are being said about her right now by Sinn Fein supporters.

This is what the party has unleashed by recklessly breaking collective responsibility in the Executive. It's open season now on anyone who doesn't follow the demand to shut down everything immediately.

This is an anxious time. People are already turning on one another in shops and on social media. To add a political edge to that division feels dangerous and irresponsible, and it's difficult to see how the Executive can operate normally in the next few months if these cracks grow wider.

What happens beyond that is even less clear. We're all going to have to work together again beyond the coronavirus crisis, and the damage done by weaponising a medical emergency that affects everyone equally, whatever their political affiliations, could prove hard to undo.

John O'Dowd's call to action on Twitter was: "It's time to get angry." He couldn't be more wrong. It's time for calm heads to prevail.

Northern Ireland has had plenty of anger in the past. It rarely made things better.

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