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Eilis O'Hanlon

When Michelle O'Neill welled up in the Assembly, the reaction was to praise her decency... so, when is Boris Johnson going to get the benefit of the doubt?

Eilis O'Hanlon


It's wrong to automatically assume the absolute worst about the Prime Minister's motives or character, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Michelle O’Neill shows emotion in the chamber

Michelle O’Neill shows emotion in the chamber

Boris Johnson addresses the nation

Boris Johnson addresses the nation

PA

Michelle O’Neill shows emotion in the chamber

Some things are bigger than party politics. The video of Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill getting emotional in the Stormont chamber when asked about cancer patients having their treatments cancelled as a result of the coronavirus was a powerful illustration of where we're at in the fight against Covid-19. Inevitably, there were some on social media who jumped in to make disparaging comments about the Deputy First Minister, but most people understood how she felt. It wasn't a republican or unionist issue, but a human one.

Politicians should expect to be pulled up when they do things that damage the collective effort against the virus, as Sinn Fein did after going on a solo run over school closures; but when it comes to the day-to-day response of the Executive to this deadly threat, ministers deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt. They're only trying to do their best to respond to a situation which is bigger and more terrifying than anything they've had to deal with before, or, fingers crossed, ever will again.

It's just a pity that the same presumption of decency isn't extended to the Prime Minister.

There will be as many opinions of Boris Johnson's address to the nation on Monday evening as there were people watching at home. Some of the 27 million of us who reportedly tuned in will have liked it; some will have hated it. Some will have been reassured; some alarmed. That's only natural. Different leaders have different styles.

When he spoke directly to the Irish people on St Patrick's Day, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's tone was softer, more empathetic. Other politicians adopted a tougher, no nonsense manner. Personally, if asked to choose, I'd prefer the second approach, but there's no single right or wrong way to do it.

The only thing that really matters is whether the message which the Prime Minister was trying to convey is getting through to those who need to hear it. As such, the six-minute speech should have left nobody in any doubt about what's now expected of them, which is that they should stay home except for a small number of essential reasons, or to exercise for limited periods each day.

There may be some who claim to find that message confusing, and who are desperate to personally blame Boris for the behaviour of a minority of idiots putting vulnerable people's lives at risk by refusing to practise social distancing; but it's hard not to conclude that they just want to cut down Boris because he's Boris, not because of anything he's actually doing, and that they'd be nitpicking no matter what he did or how he spoke.

When he's a bit bumbling and shambolic, they say he's an incompetent buffoon who doesn't inspire confidence. If he was too slick and polished, they'd claim that he was all spin and no substance.

There are always valid questions to be asked about particular policies of government, not least the row over whether to keep building sites open, which saw Arlene Foster line up at the latest Cobra meeting with the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers and the Mayor of London against the Prime Minister. Certain elements of the plan to fight Covid-19, and to alleviate the economic damage caused by the lockdown, definitely need to be fine tuned or better communicated.

Just because the country faces a long drawn out emergency doesn't mean we should all become mindless cheerleaders for the powers that be. This isn't a communist state like North Korea, where everyone must pledge full-throttled support to the Supreme Leader or face the consequences.

Constructive criticism should not mean, however, instantly assuming the absolute worst about the Prime Minister's character and motives, or knocking everything he does for its own sake.

Too many seem unable to help themselves, unfortunately. They're still stuck in that toxic divisiveness which erupted after the 2016 vote to leave the EU. That political infection will take a long while to work its way out of the system, but surely this is the moment when those who still insist on seeing the world in the most simplistic black and white terms - where Tory Brexiteers are, by definition, wrong about everything - ought to make an effort to get the hell over it and move on?

Whether they like it or not, Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister, and constantly demonising him as either wicked, useless or out of his mind just feels gratuitously abusive, as if the people shrieking at him would rather we stayed divided than give some hated Tory bogeyman any credit.

There's no doubt that, if Jeremy Corbyn had won the election in December, plenty of those who are now urging support for Boris Johnson would be attacking a Labour Prime Minister for not getting it 100% right either. I struggle to believe, though, that they would actively believe Jeremy Corbyn wanted people to die, or didn't care if they did, which is what is being widely alleged about the current inhabitant of10 Downing Street.

They've spent so long denouncing Boris as "far right", or even a "fascist", that they now seem unable to see the world through anything other than hysteria-tinted spectacles. Where's the value in painting everything he does in the worst possible light, or in apparently wanting him to fail just so you can say "I told you so" afterwards?

Anyone who knows the slightest thing about Boris Johnson should be able to see that shutting down the country, and sending out the police to enforce social distancing, really isn't his style. He'd rather be a leader in a time of good news, than during a crisis which will tragically leave many people dead before their time.

The same goes for here in Northern Ireland. When Arlene Foster stuck by the medical and scientific advice on the most effective way to halt the spread of coronavirus, her actions were maliciously misinterpreted in an equally toxic way. Some on the other side won't want to believe Michelle O'Neill is doing her best either. The evidence is that the priority of both women at this moment is to save lives, and that they and other ministers are working flat out to put in place, and enforce, whatever measures are needed.

We can all go back to the knockabout partisanship afterwards. There will be years ahead for that. In the meantime, it's going to take good-natured solidarity and willing, informed consent to what's being asked of us to get through the worst days ahead, and that can only be undermined by sneering and sniping from the sidelines.

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