Belfast Telegraph

Why do we in Northern Ireland always feel need to turn a drama into a crisis?

Are we all just born catastrophists, asks Fionola Meredith, or is Michelle O'Neill correct and it is all the border's fault?

Well, for all the Storm Ophelia hysteria, the sky didn't fall in. The reality in Northern Ireland was not fun - several hours of stiff gales and weirdly warm rain, plus a substantial number of fallen trees and homes left without electricity - but it was out of all proportion to the frantic run-up to this much-anticipated weather event.

Given the way it was hyped here, you'd think we were expecting meteorological Armageddon. When it came to the bit, the flowerpots in my back garden didn't even blow over.

Doom-mongers stoked fears on social media, warnings were issued about "the worst storm in half-a-century", hardy reporters were despatched to coastal areas, ready for the onslaught and the obligatory rain-spattered piece to camera while trying to keep hold of a fluffy microphone.

References to "Hurricane" Ophelia kept creeping in to public conversations - even though it had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached our part of the world.

Schools, parks and offices were hastily closed, hospital appointments cancelled, workers sent home early, public transport shut down. Only the crematorium kept going, getting on with the grim everyday business of death.

The scene at lunchtime on Monday in Belfast city centre resembled closing time on Christmas Eve; the traffic bumper-to-bumper as every living soul fled for the safety of home.

Actually, it was more sinister than that: there was a weird air of unreality to it all and a sense of tension and anxiety that was almost palpable. Supermarket shelves were swept clean as shoppers went into full panic-buying mode, laying into the bread, milk and tinned goods as though we were going to be holed up for days - instead of just a few hours - while the storm raged outside.

In short, almost everyone took leave of their senses.

We had it nowhere near as bad as those in the Republic, which was hit with the full brunt of the storm. There was widespread damage in the south, hundreds of thousands of homes lost electrical power and three people were killed. By comparison, Northern Ireland got off relatively lightly.

And, yet, still we were up to high doh. So why the overreaction?

A Building collapses on the Albertbridge Road in East Belfast as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
A Building collapses on the Albertbridge Road in East Belfast as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. / Credit: PressEye/ Matt Mackey
The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. / Credit: PressEye, Matt Mackey
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 A fallen tree closes the Malone Road in Belfast as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 High street in Bangor has been closed due to unstable scaffolding as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 High street in Bangor has been closed due to unstable scaffolding as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 High street in Bangor has been closed due to unstable scaffolding as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 Battling threw the heavy winds in Donaghadee as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 Battling threw the heavy winds in Donaghadee as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 16/10/2017 Battling threw the heavy winds in Donaghadee as Storm Ophelia hits across Northern Ireland on Monday, The Met Office has an amber warning for very windy weather in place from midday through to midnight on Monday, affecting all parts of the region. All schools have been closed for the day while QueenÕs University has cancelled classes. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
PEACE BRIDGE CLOSED. . . . .A PSNI officer braves the elements to secure the Peace Bridge in Derry/Londonderry last night. The footbridge between the cityside and waterside was closed around 6.15pm as winds increased. (Photo: Jim McCafferty Photography)
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Presseye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 The scene on the Albertbridge in East Belfast after the front of a building collapsed as Hurricane Ophelia begins to batter the city. Photo by Matt Mackey
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 A fallen tree blocks a street off the Upper Newtownards Road in east Belfast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 A fallen tree blocks a street off the Upper Newtownards Road in east Belfast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 A fallen tree blocks a street off the Upper Newtownards Road in east Belfast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 A fallen tree blocks a street off the Upper Newtownards Road in east Belfast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 16th October 2017 Strong winds hit Donaghadee on the Co. Down coast as storm Ophelia spreads across Ireland. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

I think it has a lot to do with our tendency to catastrophise in the face of fear, going with blind emotion rather than reason. Maybe it could be connected to our not-so-distant traumatic past, but there's definitely a strong inclination to lose the bap and panic when things look like they might be going wrong. This could apply as much to the senior civil servants currently running the show at Stormont as it does to those who dashed to the local shop for emergency supplies of Nutty Krust (or Buckfast) before the shutters slammed down. The belated decision to close all schools on Monday - sent in a tweet from the Northern Ireland Executive at 10.22pm on Sunday night - seemed to be in direct response to the closure of all southern schools, which had been announced two hours previously. Principals and parents were confused: was this a directive, or simply guidance, or maybe even a hoax tweet?

What it looked like to me was an uncertain, fear-driven reaction to a challenging situation, with the unspoken assumption that if the authorities were doing it in the south, then we should probably do it here in the north, under the old rule of "better safe than sorry".

Why all schools were also closed yesterday, which was a fine autumn day, with barely a breath of wind and pleasant spells of sunshine, is a mystery and really does smack of overkill. But that's the ever-cautious bureaucrats for you.

That said, it would be unfair to lay all the blame on civil servants, who have been scrambling to fill the void of leadership, decision-making and direction caused by the absence of a functioning Executive - or even the absence of a dysfunctional Executive, which is what we usually have and is, perhaps, better than nothing.

We are, essentially, a headless state(let) at present, unmoored and adrift, battered and blown about by whatever storms come our way - whether literal, in the case of Ophelia, or figurative, in the case of Brexit and the border. Our politicians, in failing to reconcile their differences and get Stormont resurrected, have hung us all out to dry.

But, please, spare us the dim sermon from Sinn Fein's northern leader, Michelle O'Neill, shortly after the storm had passed over.

"It's important that lessons are learned, including early decisions in regards to school closures, plus an all-Ireland approach to emergency planning as weather doesn't recognise borders," she announced.

In Shinner-world, even global meteorological events are interpreted through the prism of republicanism, and a damaging ex-hurricane is as good an opportunity as any other to make the case for a united Ireland, right?

The hurricane hysteria is not just about us being weird. It's part of a much wider tendency, fuelled by yowling numpties on social media, to react instantly and emotionally and childishly to news stories, rather than taking time to think and independently evaluate.

This is about getting carried away with distorted ideas of risk and danger, jacking the public mood up to storm-force 10 and beyond, in mindless pursuit of a piece of the action.

As Storm Ophelia "barrelled" towards the Irish coast - the hyper-emotive term of choice - before "making landfall" on Monday, no doubt many people, whipped up by the frenzy, were envisaging scenes of devastation similar to those caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean last month. But Irma and Maria were true category five hurricanes, blasting all before them, with catastrophic results.

What happened here in Northern Ireland on Monday afternoon and evening was merely an intense autumn storm which passed over with relatively minor effects.

Michelle O'Neill
Michelle O'Neill

I'm sure it doesn't feel like that to the Broughshane man, Tommy Dowds, who was sitting in his sun room when a 70-foot beech tree crashed through the ceiling. But for most of us, it was just a lot of not-so-hot air.

Business as usual, in other words.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph