| 7.1°C Belfast

Tom Kelly

In these long days of lockdown, counting the hours to Irish reunification is hardly a priority... it's all about health, health and health

Tom Kelly

Mary Lou McDonald needs to learn that not every opportunity to score points about a united Ireland has to be hammered home, says Tom Kelly


Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald

I have begun to wonder if catching Covid-19 has a lasting affect on a patient's rationality. Just yesterday, we had the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, at the door of 10 Downing Street, "raring to go" when his tired and furrowed face said otherwise. He then went on to say we would progress on a pathway to recovery "with openness and transparency".

The only thing transparent about Government policy in relation to Covid-19 has been its threadbare substance and lack of joined-up thinking, making it very transparent indeed.

Then there was Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Fein and would-be Taoiseach. Ms McDonald, like the Prime Minister, tested positive for Covid-19, quarantined and has now recovered.

One of the first things on her mind was a united Ireland. She said in an interview with the Sunday Times that Covid-19 "was a greater catalyst for a united Ireland than Brexit".

Like many a politician before her, Ms McDonald seems only too willing to opt for a spot of political opportunism during a crisis - even a life-threatening one like Covid-19. In these long days of lockdown, social isolation from families, friends and work colleagues, counting the hours to Irish reunification is hardly a priority - even among the most nationalist of communities. It's all about health, health and health.

Ms McDonald said, because the British Government had dallied with the notion of herd mentality in its approach to Covid-19, Stormont was not able to align their Covid-19 strategy with the Republic of Ireland.

In reality, it was Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who took everyone by surprise by his call for an immediate lockdown, which left the Stormont Executive wrong-footed. His lack of consultation was a huge blow to the all-island approach.

The rights and wrongs of approaches will be examined at great length by historians, policymakers, politicians, scientists and journalists for decades to come.

But forensic filleting of those approaches now won't lessen the pain of a single family who have lost a loved one to this cruel virus. Either way, this is neither the time or the place for another call for a united Ireland.

One would have thought that the Sinn Fein president, emerging from her convalescence, could have shown more sensitivity. No one expects Sinn Fein to abandon their aspiration to a united Ireland, but there are grim realities being faced daily across the island which owe allegiance to neither Harp nor Crown.

North and south, people are being buried without the grace of a wake, service, or a Requiem Mass. Unemployment is soaring. Businesses are teetering on the brink of collapse. The most vulnerable are trapped in fear and isolation and health and care workers are paying the heaviest of prices for being in the frontline in the fight against coronavirus.

The Stormont Executive has been well-intentioned, but not well-disciplined. While individual ministers are working hard and quite earnestly, it's the collective spirit which will hallmark the Executive's success. Unfortunately, that spirit is missing in joint broadcasts and the public are not fooled.

The DUP and Sinn Fein seem incapable of holding a 15-minute press conference without disagreeing. They seem to forget that, in coalitions, arguing should be kept at the Cabinet table, not the press conference.

If discipline breaks down among the wider populace against the social restrictions currently in place, the lack of leadership by the political establishment will have played a huge role.

If they look as if they are acting like cats being herded at the crossroads, the public will pay their warnings scant regard.

The deputy First Minister kick-started what seems like a Lannigan's Ball approach to collegiality, stepping in one day to say the time is not right for schools to close, but then, 24 hours later, stepping out again.

Sinn Fein's approach has not been coherent, even when they try to sound consistent. Just saying "testing, testing, testing" is not enough. If Stormont needed an approach to follow, it was not to be found in London, or Dublin, but in Wellington.

When Arlene Foster said there was no need for testing of visitors arriving from Britain into Northern Ireland's airports, Sinn Fein - correctly - objected. However, they were less clear about what to do with the majority of visitors who arrive in Ireland via Dublin airports and who are also not tested.

Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland strongly opposed the reopening of graveyards and cemeteries, while unionists wanted them open. Of course, that was until Ms McDonald said it was okay and the bereaved had been listened to.

In reality, Sinn Fein could start a fight in a graveyard and that is what some of the arguments are beginning to seem like.

The arguments over whether an all-island, or UK-wide, approach in tackling Covid-19 are entirely legitimate positions for debate. But they not political debates about the constitutional integrity of Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein president should know better.

When this pandemic finally leaves the island of Ireland, the tab left behind is going to be colossal. At the moment, financially speaking, the kitchen sink is being thrown at the fallout of Covid-19.

But Treasury vaults, whether in Dublin or London, are not limitless. Such a reckoning will mean many things will be reappraised, both north and south.

Sinn Fein needs to learn that not every opportunity to score points about building an united Ireland has to be hammered home.

People are now afraid in a way never experienced before.

Increasing that fear by raising the spectrum of something which many unionists are, at best, wary of is counterproductive.

What will be much more impressive to the wider public will be the competence of ministers in the Executive during this crisis, the capacity to manage their departments and their ability to instil confidence in public bodies.

Everything else, including a united Ireland, is for another day.

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

Belfast Telegraph