Belfast Telegraph

Weather chaos - why can't Northern Ireland cope with snow?

By Gail Walker

In spite of our well-deserved reputation in Northern Ireland for knee-jerk and violent reactions to perceived cultural slights, political snubs and even loose talk, we have this in common as a population when public services collapse.

Utter craven obeisance across the board.

Since the 'bad weather' arrived as predicted last Friday, there has been a series of astounding failures of service. The usual hard-core of 40,000 homes lost electricity almost at once; those that didn't experienced flickers, short-term blackout, general unpredictability of supply. Central Belfast was shut down for chunks of Friday evening.

Public transport struggled in the blighted eastern wastes of Northern Ireland, even as the track to Derry-Londonderry re-opened. TV blacked out periodically over the weekend.

The World Cup qualifier against Russia – a nation well used to managing, er, 'bad weather', was postponed twice as Windsor Park in the centre of a modern European city was deemed 'unplayable'.

Most alarming of all, systems at the Ambulance Service broke down completely and emergency calls were re-routed (via a buddy partnership) to Scotland and then returned to the Fair Province by mobile phone. The rubric had it that record-keeping was reduced to a 'pen and paper' service.

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Yes, there were similar difficulties throughout the UK, especially Scotland and Wales, and some classic episodes of flooding in parts of the Republic. But our trauma was greater, not only per head of the population, but in absolute scale.

This isn't simply to hammer the service providers either. There will have been enough mighty curses drawn down over the period on the heads of Translink, NIE, IFA, BBC, Virgin, NHS or whoever owns the franchises for maintenance of supply in any of these.

And there were triumphs scored – buses got through, stoical workers battled to restore power, paramedics did their duty, elderly neighbours were pestered by that nice, concerned (ie nosey parker) couple next door, armed with candles and woollies ...

No. It's about how the rest of us ritually roll-over under conditions which are rendered needlessly dangerous, unnecessarily cumbersome and inhospitable, at the very least disquieting, at worst frightening, by civic systems which are revealed once more to be simply inadequate.

It took the spectacular failure of the water service in the big freeze two years ago to expose the chronic under-investment in infrastructure and the sluggish incompetence of response as humiliatingly closer to developing world standard than that of a western European democracy. But even then, we allowed the mantra of 'bad weather' to cover-up the multitude of sins.

This time? Really, what were difficult weather conditions brought tracts of Northern Ireland to a standstill. And not only the odd 'remote, rural' homestead in which peculiarly awkward people persist in making their home, but whole town and city centres, built-up, dense urban environments, in some cases whole towns, were affected by the shut down one might associate with volcanic eruption in other parts of the world. What should have been minor melodrama had people referencing The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact and Dante's Peak – there were moments (for some people whole days) when communication was completely closed down and the Middle Ages were back.

The coming thaw will find the carcasses of dead animals strewn along the hillsides because farmers were abandoned in two counties, left on their own to manage the obvious damage to their businesses. Coping with the commercial damage will be one thing, the emotional trauma quite another.

The fact is, our civic society was revealed to the world yet again as fragile, unpredictable, vulnerable and very much under-par. Throwing one's hands to the sky and blaming the angry gods in the mountains really isn't a sufficient response from the service suppliers we are so exclusively dependent on or from our political leaders, who either vanished entirely under the falls of snow like abandoned cars or spent their windy nights and days tweeting an electorate who's internet connection had long before petered out, about how terrible it all was.

The day when our population refuses to accept commonly suffered mediocrity across the board of massively expensive public services will be the day when we know we have a proper, real-time community at peace with itself.

As life-preserving systems totter, folks, let's aim to make everything, through storm, flood, snow and pestilence, work just as efficiently and ruthlessly as Direct Debit.

Belfast Telegraph


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