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Alex Kane

Don't be fooled by joint statements about working together... Covid-19 changes precisely nothing between unionism and republicanism

Alex Kane


The border continues to eclipse every other consideration, even a global crisis of this magnitude, writes Alex Kane

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First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a coronavirus media briefing at Stormont

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a coronavirus media briefing at Stormont

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during a coronavirus media briefing at Stormont

While the Executive parties insist they are determined to act in the best interests of all of the people in Northern Ireland in the fight against Covid-19, there is a political reality they cannot escape.

While it is true that many unionists - including those in the Assembly - have reservations about how Boris Johnson has handled the crisis, they remain cautious about pursuing any strategy which would see Northern Ireland significantly out-of-kilter with the rest of the United Kingdom.

And Sinn Fein - very keen to play the "England's problem is Ireland's opportunity" card at the moment - doesn't want Executive strategy to be significantly out-of-kilter with the rest of Ireland.

Issuing joint statements about working together in the Executive is one thing; but actually working together, particularly if it's in a way that seems to favour one national government approach over the other, is another thing entirely.

In a letter on April 22, following Leo Varadkar's announcement that the Irish Government would begin a unilateral process to ease lockdown restrictions, Mary Lou McDonald wrote: "You announced last night that the caretaker government is preparing a plan to lift the public health emergency restrictions, with steps to progress this plan taken every two to three weeks ... A safe exit strategy must be, by definition, all-Ireland. This will require close collaboration and co-ordination with the Executive in Belfast."

This all-Ireland mantra has been at the heart of Sinn Fein's approach to Covid-19 since the beginning, with many of their key players linking it to the much bigger constitutional project of Irish unity.

Understandably, that approach has angered most of unionism, including many individual unionists who aren't, in fact, supportive of the UK Government's sluggish approach to the crisis, or the reality that there have been more Covid-19 deaths in the UK than in any other European country.

There was also anger when Sinn Fein junior minister Declan Kearney wrote in his blog a few weeks ago: "Disturbingly, the extension of lockdown in the short term masks an argument which is being encouraged by some right-wing elements in the British Cabinet and also by some unionists in the north of Ireland that the lockdown measures should be relaxed and that economic activity and productivity should be resumed. It is the typical capitalist reflex which puts the market economy first."

The problem for Sinn Fein is that Leo Varadkar has now pushed ahead with his own proposals to relax lockdown and encourage the resumption of economic activity and productivity, and has done so without consulting either Sinn Fein or the Northern Ireland Executive (although Simon Coveney says a heads-up was given to Arlene Foster, Michelle O'Neill and Robin Swann the night before Varadkar's speech)

Yet, Regina Doherty, the Irish Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, seemed to defend not formally telling the Executive first: "At the end of the day, I think the most important thing that we needed to do was to tell the people that we serve; the Irish people. And that is what the Taoiseach did at the first opportunity after the cabinet meeting was over."

Yet, even though Sinn Fein has expressed anger at Varadkar's not consulting the Executive and Doherty's defence of him, the party still feels obliged to support him, rather than any UK-led alternative.

There had been hope in some quarters that the nature of the crisis would improve the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein. But evidence suggests that the constitutional gulf between them remains as wide and as divisive as ever.

And while it is true that the number of deaths here is lower than originally predicted (primarily due to the scale and success of the lockdown), there has been no corresponding indication of cross-party agreement on what needs to be done next. Ironically, the success in keeping the numbers down seems to have exacerbated the policy/strategy disagreements between them.

Sinn Fein has been pushing for the Executive to publish a plan for easing restrictions, but that seems to be more to do with keeping Northern Ireland in step with the Irish government rather than waiting to hear what Boris Johnson will say on Sunday.

Michelle O'Neill wanted the plan published yesterday, but with the UK Government favouring a UK-wide strategy built on conversations with the devolved administrations, I'd be very surprised if the Executive agreed to jump the gun and publish its own proposals.

From the unionist perspective, it's also a matter of not creating new gulfs with the UK Government, particularly at a time when the Executive and Northern Ireland will need massive economic support from that government for the next few years.

That's not to say that the Executive couldn't, or won't, produce a recommendations document which might feed into Johnson's thinking before Sunday's speech.

The Scottish Government (which will also require massive economic support from the Exchequer) has already made a case for some bespoke arrangements; while the nature of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic also favours a bespoke approach in some, very specific, areas.

But since the Irish Government has clearly embarked on its own approach to easing lockdown and kick-starting the economy, it would now seem odd if the Northern Ireland Executive decided not to wait for a lead from the UK Government. Indeed, Johnson may already be considering the Varadkar proposals as a potential template.

It's also worth bearing in mind that nobody really knows how the easing of restrictions in some countries (particularly Spain, Italy and Ireland) will work.

An awful lot seems to depend on people exercising common sense, avoiding complacency and adhering to social distancing rules and continuing lockdown regulations. There is no guarantee that will happen.

And nor is there a guarantee that there won't be a second wave of Covid-19, which could actually be much more devastating than the first wave. For all of us, this is - and will remain - uncharted waters.

Northern Ireland is in a very odd position: torn politically/constitutionally between London and Dublin and with both the DUP and Sinn Fein (although, in fairness, the same can be said of the UUP and SDLP) seemingly electorally obliged to support competing strategies from Johnson and Varadkar, even when they have difficulties with those strategies.

But, as I have noted many, many times down the years, and in relation to a whole host of issues, the "dreary steeples" outlook will always trump a genuinely collective approach.

And even though the Covid-19 crisis is a unique challenge we have, as ever, ended up in our default position.

Am I surprised? Not really. The "border" continues to eclipse and predominate every other consideration - even a unique crisis of this magnitude - and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

Belfast Telegraph