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Lindy McDowell

Enormity of coronavirus crisis we face is laid bare on day of raw emotion in the Assembly

Lindy McDowell


Tears: Michelle O’Neill in the Assembly yesterday

Tears: Michelle O’Neill in the Assembly yesterday

Tears: Michelle O’Neill in the Assembly yesterday

These are the choices we are going to have to deal with... Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill had, on behalf of First Minister Arlene Foster and herself, just delivered to the Northern Ireland Assembly a statement wide in scope and stark in summation about the battle facing us all regarding coronavirus.

These were extraordinary times which required extraordinary steps, she said, her words reverberating around a chamber where those of her fellow MLAs present sat feet apart observing correct social distancing.

Sympathy was conveyed to the family of the second person to have died here from Covid-19. The mood was sombre. How could it not be?

But it was businesslike and determined too. The Executive was united in facing the challenge ahead. And then came a moment in which, rather than through the citing of statistics or outlining of extraordinary measures, the full enormity - the humanity - of the crisis was laid bare.

North Antrim MLA Jim Allister asked what was he to say to a young woman, a constituent who’d contacted him. The mother of a two-year-old child, she suffers from cancer but she’s been told her chemotherapy treatment will have to stop because “choices have to be made”.

Mrs O’Neill struggled for words.

“What do you say? What can you say? What can you say to that person?” Michelle turned to the lectern in front of her, head bowed, drumming her fingers a little, trying to regain her composure.

And then, her voice breaking, she added: “These are the choices we are going to have to deal with...”

Most of us tend to be a bit cynical about politicians in general, Stormont in particular.

But in these extraordinary and distressing days, these are the people who will have to make the call on almost impossible choices.

They’re human beings just like the rest of us. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons. Doctors and other medical staff also face having to make the most difficult decisions. They’re not automatons, any of them. And this must be taking the most terrible toll on all of them. That fleeting moment of raw emotion in the Assembly is a chilling reminder of the humanity in the midst of this crisis.

Our thoughts are with all of them. With the medical staff and with the politicians trying to do their best in the face of this unprecedented crisis.

But above all, with that young mother, fearful, God help her, of what now lies ahead.

And with so many more like her.

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