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Why we now need an all-Ireland taskforce to combat coronavirus

Don Anderson

We need to recapture the spirit of co-operation that existed during the foot and mouth crisis two decades ago, argues Don Anderson


Arlene Foster with Leo Varadkar

Arlene Foster with Leo Varadkar

Gardai at a checkpoint during the foot and mouth outbreak

Gardai at a checkpoint during the foot and mouth outbreak

Arlene Foster with Leo Varadkar

If ever there was a time we needed to learn from the past, it is surely now as Northern Ireland struggles to deal with the seemingly irresistible onslaught of a pandemic. It isn't lethal, like a medieval black plague or the 1918 flu attack, but it is extremely serious.

However, we have recently been part of the way before. I'm talking about the devastating 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a virulent farm animal infection which caused very severe disruption, not to mention damage, to economic and social life in Northern Ireland.

The then president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, Douglas Rowe, spoke about the debilitating impact on the farming community. "There was no social activity, no markets, no way of selling product. You didn't leave your farm unless you had to, life ground down to a very slow stop," he said.

The rotten effect on humans in 2001 was indirect, but nevertheless his words sound depressingly familiar, as did his following observation. He said that with increased global trade and travel, he believed it only a matter of time before the arrival of the next outbreak of a similar disease. "What that disease will be and what form it will take, I don't know, but I am pretty certain it will happen again," he added.

Too right, Mr Rowe, too right. I suspect you were talking principally about the animal kingdom, but we belong there too and mass culling isn't on the agenda as a response. The Agriculture Minister in the Executive in 2001 was Brid Rodgers. She is regarded as having dealt with the foot-and-mouth crisis competently.

Looking back, she said: "It was the first test of the Executive because we were really made up of very opposing factions or parties. I got support across party lines. Nobody tried to make political capital out of anything. Everybody realised that it was important to work together.'

What is hitting us now is worse, much worse. Instead of the mutual support across party lines Mrs Rodgers enjoyed and benefited from, we have Orange and Green party political sniping that disgraces the political classes. If they all cannot pull together in these dire circumstances, then when?

Those politicians should also recognise that there is shadowed fallout from the RHI scandal, which exposed the two main parties - and the Civil Service - indulging in disappointing behaviour. The episode further undermined faith in the competence of devolved government here.

As I read about RHI and about what is today happening on the Hill, I thought of the famed 1934 French satirical novel by Gabriel Chevallier, set in the fictional village of Clochemerle, the title of the book. It satirises the drawn out bickering between Catholics and Republicans in the French Third Republic concerning the installation of a pissoir near the village church. The BBC serialised it in 1972. Please re-run it, BBC. It might help Northern Ireland more than the over 75s TV licence business.

The Stormont Speaker, Alex Maskey, has declared that it can no longer be business as usual. His words should resonate beyond the border. If ever there was a time for a coordinated campaign against Covid-19 across this island, that time is now. It was dispiriting when Sinn Fein departed from an agreed communal restriction policy soon after linking arms with the DUP to launch it. But it was equally unsettling that the government in Dublin unleashed a different set of restrictions within their jurisdiction with inadequate consultation or warning to those sharing this geographical space, behaving as if there could be no relevance within the adjoining jurisdiction.

The word 'island' has a meaning beyond the political. Airlines such as EasyJet seem likely to ground all their flights. Other airlines are thinking along similar lines as European and north Atlantic borders are closed and traffic dwindles to unsustainable levels. Can Aer Lingus be immune?

If isolation is the new buzzword, could it apply to flying into and out of the whole of Ireland? Look at the gathering clouds. The European Commission has proposed a ban on non-essential travel to the EU for a period of at least 30 days. The President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said she had proposed the measure during a conference call with G7 leaders. If agreed, the restriction will be in place for an initial period of 30 days, but she made clear it could be prolonged. There would be exemptions for long-term residents, family members of EU nationals and diplomats.

For obvious reasons, frontier workers, doctors, nurses, care workers and experts tackling the pandemic would also be spared from the ban. The transport of goods would also be exempted from the proposed ban. That should ensure the ferries keep running to refill the supermarket shelves blitzed by selfish panic. But the EU border in Ireland cannot be hermetically sealed. Ireland and the UK are being asked to align with the ban due to the Common Travel Area.

Ever more drastic measures are being called for by individual governments as geographical Europe inexorably shuts down. In our historical past Ireland has suffered by being on the periphery of the continental mass. Possibly, for once, that isolation could help, but only if we fall in line with separation for the whole of Ireland.

This inevitably begs the question as to whether there should be an all-Ireland strategy for dealing with what could be the worst threat to face us in our lifetimes. Forget the political dimension because it fades into utter insignificance compared with keeping all of us as safe as can be managed. It would be a temporary measure.

To that end, the Executive should take an inspired step and go some way to restore its ragged reputation. Our politicians must immediately approach the relevant authorities in Dublin, set up an emergency cross-border coronavirus taskforce and start coordinating for all our sakes, north and south.

As you read this, people of differing creeds and nationalities are criss-crossing the border on foot, by road and by rail 24/7, complete with baggage undetectable except with specialised kit. You don't need to be a scientific advisor to the Government, a medical professor, eminent anthropologist or sociologist to recognise that a small island must combine against a biological common enemy.

The political lessons of that foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 still resonate.

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