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Alex Kane

Why Executive is right to go with best practice on easing lockdown no matter where advice comes from

Alex Kane

It makes sense for Northern Ireland to cherry-pick ideas on the way ahead, although it might have been better to set a more definite timetable, argues Alex Kane


First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, during yesterday’s briefing on easing lockdown

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, during yesterday’s briefing on easing lockdown


First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, during yesterday’s briefing on easing lockdown

As late as Monday afternoon, after comments from Junior Minister Declan Kearney, there were still hints of potential disagreement in the Executive: "Further work will need to be done on the plan over the next 24 hours to reflect the views of our five-party, power-sharing Executive; and when finalised we hope to bring that document before the Assembly tomorrow." So, it would be churlish not to congratulate the Executive for having agreed and published their plan, while also noting the caveat in its conclusion that "there will be times when there are strongly held but contrasting views on the right decision about the next steps".

While I accept the point that there are problems in setting dates, it is worth recognising that there are also problems in not setting dates. Continuing the present lockdown conditions in the absence of dates and other certainties may undermine the hopes and chinks of light that so many people - not least businesses, employers, school principals, councils et al - require during a crisis.

An agreed exit plan is obviously necessary, but an exit plan without dates may actually make life more difficult for those people who have to make key decisions and need some timing details about when those decisions can be implemented. Indeed, being given a date at a later press conference - which may not have been discussed with them in advance - could actually further complicate matters for them. It's important, therefore, that (even if not for public consumption) key people who will need to make the key decisions about life after lockdown are not left in the dark when it comes to specific timing.

And while it is good that the Executive parties have come together to sign off on and promote this plan, it should be noted that with 82 of the 90 MLAs belonging to those parties, it means that non-Executive scrutiny will be limited. Precedent suggests that when that happens, it usually means that the most essential and effective scrutiny and opposition of government policy can often move to sources outside the Assembly. So, bearing in mind that the present circumstances are unprecedented, the Executive parties need to ease the whip system a little and allow their individual members the freedom to ask awkward questions and raise difficult issues over the next few months. Keeping their mouths shut to maintain a pretence that there are no differences and no alternatives over the strategy has never worked in the past and it won't work this time, either.

I noted in a piece for the Belfast Telegraph a few days ago that the age-old differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein (as well as the UUP and SDLP, of course) over the constitutional issue made it difficult for them to reach consensus on many other issues - including a joint approach to dealing with Covid-19. Yesterday's document includes a paragraph (2.9) which tries to get around the problem of North/South and east/west collaboration:

"As we face the same challenges as others, we are working closely both on a four nations basis within the UK and on a North/South basis with the Irish Government. The Chief Medical Officer and other senior experts work closely on a four nations basis with their counterparts in GB on evidence, analysis and likely future progression of the disease. In North/South terms, the cooperation is facilitated by a Memorandum of Understanding entered into by the two Chief Medical officers. This has facilitated regular policy and professional meetings between the Chief Medical Officers and respective teams in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Recognising the island as a single epidemiological unit, data and modelling of the course of the epidemic in NI and the RoI has been undertaken and research commissioned from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland and Northern Ireland on the longer term health consequences of the current social distancing measures."

No one should underestimate the importance of that paragraph. It probably took longer to reach agreement on its wording than the wording of any other paragraph.

Foster will be aware that some of her DUP base will be uncomfortable with what seems to be a drifting away from the strategy outlined by Boris Johnson (although he gave her cover yesterday in the House of Commons when he noted: "Different approaches by the devolved administrations are to be welcomed where these are appropriate to their specific needs"), while O'Neill's base - which mostly supports John O'Dowd's 'shire of bastards' description - wants to maintain a great distance between her position and Johnson's.

There will be a temptation in some quarters to over-egg the importance of yesterday's collective approach; yet, like most temptations, it should be tempered. While there may be significant differences between Northern Ireland's strategy for dealing with the crisis and those in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic, there is also another crucial difference: the governments in London, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff don't contain an inbuilt political/constitutional schism and an inbuilt veto if one side doesn't agree on policy.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have done well to get to this point although, to be honest, failure to do so would have risked collapsing the Executive and with it the entire political/institutional process here.

The death toll - much lower than the 'biblical proportions' predicted at the start - has helped to reassure most people that the lockdown has worked in Northern Ireland, while Health Minister Robin Swann's calmness during the storm has also, I think, been a crucial factor in steadying nerves.

Yet it seems likely that at some point fairly soon, Northern Ireland will find itself out of step with progress in both the Republic and in some parts of Great Britain. And it's at that point when the DUP/SF consensus will come under enormous stress and similarly enormous pressure to push east instead of west, or vice versa.

I fear there could also be very serious differences when they have to agree on dates to lift lockdown restrictions; agree on conflicting medical/scientific evidence from their various sources; and make hugely difficult decisions if, in the event the crisis goes on longer than expected, economic concerns go head-to-head with health concerns.

But, all that aside, yesterday was a pretty good day for the Executive. It proved that it can, when it wants to, work in common purpose.

In Northern Ireland we have the opportunity to seize upon the best practices from London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast for a bespoke solution; and if it helps to keep us alive and ease the path to a 'new normal' then I don't actually care all that much about the source of the best practice.

Belfast Telegraph