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Suzanne Breen

Safety first approach to save lives trumps any criticism of divergence from London line

Suzanne Breen


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Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill yesterday

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill yesterday

PA

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

PA

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill yesterday

The DUP was badly burned by its dalliance with Boris Johnson and the Tories on Brexit. But it initially appeared that no lessons had been learned when coronavirus hit our shores.

Although the UK reported its first case almost a month before the Republic did, Dublin acted much more quickly and decisively than Downing Street.

The DUP's instinct is almost always (minus gay rights and abortion) to follow London's lead. At the start of this pandemic it seemed to be wedded to Johnson's less aggressive approach to fighting Covid-19.

Ideologically, it made sense to stick with central government's strategy. After all, the DUP's unrelenting demand during Brexit debates was that Northern Ireland must be treated exactly the same as other parts of the UK.

There were much publicised clashes with Sinn Fein over an all-island coronavirus strategy, closing schools, and other matters in March and April.

The storm does appear to have abated. Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill conducted TV interviews outside Stormont last night after releasing their roadmap out of lockdown.

Although social distancing dictated that they stand metres apart, they were politically closer than they have been at any time during this health emergency.

London may have altered its messaging to 'Stay Alert' but Northern Ireland is stubbornly sticking with 'Stay Home. Save Lives', and that is massively in keeping with public opinion here.

Scotland and Wales going their own way as well does make it easier for the DUP. But it's still uncomfortable territory for some unionists who see it as yet another weakening of the bonds that hold the UK together.

TUV leader Jim Allister noted with sarcasm in the Assembly said: "The devolved regions were all very happy to be in lockstep with Westminster when it came to receiving Treasury money."

Yet ideological concerns weigh less heavily for most ordinary folk during a global pandemic. DUP voters are just as worried about returning to work without adequate protection as Sinn Fein ones. Concern over care home deaths, PPE, and testing is as great in Ballysillan as it is in Ballymurphy. Constitutional issues should be parked during this crisis.

Michelle O'Neill was asked by a journalist if the steps in Northern Ireland's roadmap to recovery would correspond with the dates in the Republic's exit strategy. "It's not about that," she rightly said.

The absence of a timeframe in Stormont's plan - as the Republic, England, Scotland and Wales have in theirs - has been widely criticised. The SDLP notably joined business figures in expressing its disappointment. But including dates was far from problem-free. Even if they come with caveats, they are firmly fixed in the public mind and it can be difficult to unlock expectation if they have to be changed. Linking progress to criteria instead allows for much greater flexibility and frees up Stormont to move faster or slower.

The British Government's generously impressive extension of the furlough scheme to pay workers on lockdown leave until October lifts a huge weight off the shoulders of many citizens here.

Such state intervention from a Tory Chancellor - 29% of the UK's workers are now furloughed - proves it's not just here that coronavirus is leading to bold, new political positions.

The high proportion of public sector jobs in Northern Ireland will also help cushion us from some economic damage.

Bar the SDLP's mild criticism of the Executive's blueprint, the only objection in Parliament Buildings came from Jim Allister.

He believes that Stormont is adopting a far too conservative approach on lockdown and that we should have followed England in easing more restrictions.

Coronavirus was now mainly a problem in nursing homes and was not spreading in the community as it had been, he said. Only a third of ICU beds were in use, and there were several thousand empty hospital beds.

"The conditions which brought us into lockdown have changed. The health service has thankfully not been overwhelmed. Why continue to behave as if it has been?" he told the Belfast Telegraph last night.

Mr Allister feared that if economic restrictions weren't eased considerably "we will have nothing left of our economy to pick up".

He is likely to be a lone voice in Stormont - a position with which he is eminently comfortable - voicing disapproval of the Executive's direction.

Stormont has adopted an ultra-cautious approach to ending lockdown. Children will go back to school part-time at most in the autumn. Bars and restaurants won't open until December. Home-working is advised where possible up until Christmas.

But there's a reason for the refusal to take risks. More than 3,000 lives were lost here during the Troubles. We know all to well the pain and suffering bereavement brings.

The last thing our new Executive needs is to be presiding over a massive death toll. That's why our political leaders are playing it safe.

Belfast Telegraph