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Eilis O'Hanlon

Why 'We're all in this together' is just a slogan, not a blueprint that ministers at Stormont think applies to them too

Eilis O'Hanlon

If the DUP and Sinn Fein can't put aside their differences for coronavirus, they're hardly going to manage it later when the stakes are far lower, writes Eilis O'Hanlon


Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster


Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster

Social distancing hasn't come a moment too soon for Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill.

Now they can stand as far apart as they'd secretly like to do all the time, while pretending that it's for the public good.

All they needed was for the stringent new Covid-19 regulations which came into place on Saturday, forbidding most people in Northern Ireland from leaving the house without a "reasonable excuse", to require politicians to stay at home, too, and the two women wouldn't have had to meet again for the duration of the crisis.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter a jot whether the First and Deputy First ministers get along.

There have always been double acts, who, while keeping up appearances in public, couldn't stand the sight of one another in private: Liam and Noel Gallagher; Simon and Garfunkel; Mulder and Scully from The X-Files.

By the end of their careers, comedy duo Abbott and Costello refused to even appear on screen in the same scenes.

All that really matters is whether Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill are able to set aside their differences and work collectively to fine-tune Northern Ireland's response to Covid-19. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be happening, either.

First, there was the row over when to close schools. In the past week, they moved to openly disagreeing on which businesses were deemed essential and could stay open.

The absurdity of the situation came to a head with reports that the two main parties are now actually doctoring footage of their joint media briefings so that Sinn Fein's videos show only Michelle O'Neill and the DUP's show only Arlene Foster.

If you watch the videos side by side, what's more startling is that they generally follow the same pattern.

They start with a wide shot of the stage on which the two women stand and then the camera zooms in either on Mrs Foster or Mrs O'Neill, where it remains for the duration of the video.

They're filmed with the same camera, so are they then also being edited by the same people behind the scenes, according to different instructions from those representing the First and Deputy First Ministers?

Or have the social media teams of two separate parties miraculously decided independently of one another to do exactly the same thing? Both those scenarios would be astonishing.

Obviously, it's easier for governments which are led by a single party, as in England and Scotland, to keep disagreements over the best approach to tackling Covid-19 to themselves; but even in Wales, where the Labour Party is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they strive to present a united front.

No such pretence exists in Northern Ireland. The dissension is plain to see and, while there was something revolting about the rapport which Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness managed to build up during their time as First and Deputy First Ministers, as if all those lives lost in the names of their competing brands of ideological purism had merely been a prelude to the "Chuckle Brothers" act, at least it was possible back then to hope that divisions could be overcome.

Now that's a pipe dream. "We're all in this together" is just a slogan, not a blueprint that ministers at Stormont think applies to them, too.

There are reasons why solidarity has not proven possible. Repeated suspensions of Stormont have eroded mutual trust and respect. The most recent one lasted for three years and only ended in January.

When the shutters came down, Martin McGuinness was Deputy First Minister. When they went back up, he'd died and been replaced by O'Neill, who was Minister for Health under the previous administration.

There simply hasn't been time for her and Foster to learn how to work effectively in tandem.

What it needed was a period of boring administration, dealing with day-to-day problems.

Instead, they were pitched into a crisis so huge that far longer established governments around the world have struggled to cope as well.

It's not greatly surprising that the Executive has come under strain. It also needs to be acknowledged that the tensions between the two leaders only reflects divisions in Northern Ireland itself.

One of the most depressing aspects of modern politics is the huge gulfs that have opened up between people of different parties and with different values.

Left and Right are no longer just places on the political map. They're practically different continents.

In many ways, the whole world has become like Northern Ireland writ large, just when we needed it to move in the other direction.

That culture war is manifesting itself in responses to the coronavirus.

Those who support Michelle O'Neill insist she's only following the best international advice to save people from the virus, as well as claiming, appallingly, that the DUP is blindly doing Boris Johnson's bidding and doesn't care how many people die as long as we stay aligned with the UK approach.

Supporters of Arlene Foster, in turn, point out that she's only following the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and that Sinn Fein is playing populist politics for electoral gain.

It certainly is suspicious that Sinn Fein is demanding authorities in Northern Ireland copy what's being done in the Republic - while Sinn Fein in the Republic complain that what's being done there is inadequate.

But while pointing out the hypocrisies in one another's positions may have been knockabout fun a few short weeks ago, it now feels as if these political games should also be classified as "non-essential" for the foreseeable future. Lives are - literally - on the line.

The DUP needs to find a way to make Michelle O'Neill feel that she's being listened to, especially when, as with the row over whether a carpet factory counts as an essential service, her instincts were surely right.

Sinn Fein, in turn, needs to stop playing north and south off against each other.

On their own website, there are two links. One takes people to "public service information in the south". The other takes them to "public service information in the north".

Anyone who clicks both will find very little difference between the advice being given.

But are both parties willing, in these extraordinary times, to bend a little in order to make it easier for each other to show more generosity? It doesn't seem like it - and that doesn't bode well for beyond the crisis.

If they can't put aside their differences during the most serious emergency they will ever have to face, they're hardly going to manage it later when the stakes are far lower.

Belfast Telegraph