Let me begin where I left off in Wednesday’s piece for the Belfast Telegraph: ‘The key challenge for the Executive parties over the next few weeks/months is to stand firm. They must not get to the point at which it looks like UK and Irish strategies are being played against each other.
Covid-19 isn’t going to give damn about where the border begins and ends; and nor will it give a damn about national identities or voting habits in Northern Ireland. Every one of us, every single one, is a target for the virus and every one of us, every single one — irrespective of political beliefs — must be on the same side until this crisis is over.
Twelve weeks ago five parties agreed to resume collective responsibility for governing Northern Ireland again. The key words there are ‘collective’ and ‘responsibility.’ They are in it together. We are all in it together. That’s the only thing that matters right now.
But the last 48 hours or so have not been good for government in Northern Ireland. Where people needed certainty, coherence, confidence and competence they were, instead, treated to bickering and disunity. Where they should have seen cross-community, shoulder-to-shoulder cooperation, they saw the ‘dreary steeples’ of orange and green.
My sense is that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are scared: for their own safety and the safety of their family circle; as well as post-virus concerns about their jobs and personal finances. They don’t blame the Executive for the pandemic, but they will blame politicians who don’t seem able to embrace collective responsibility during this crisis.
The next few weeks are likely to be horrendous, with a scale of misery, ill-health, pressure and death — most of it happening within a fairly brief timescale — not seen in our collective lifetime
A number of questions are worth asking, though, about Friday’s PPE story. If Conor Murphy was aware the order wasn’t arriving on Friday — and he admitted on Friday he knew on Thursday afternoon — why was Michelle O’Neill so openly critical of Health Minister Robin Swann on BBC’s The View on Thursday evening? In retrospect it sounded like a pre-emptive strike and dominated the local headlines on Friday, as she knew it would. Murphy said he knew last weekend there were problems — yet didn’t seem to have a back-up plan. When did he tell Swann? When did he tell the Executive? Why did the story come via a ‘leak’ rather than in a formal statement on Thursday by Murphy?
At Friday's press conference — with Arlene Foster, Conor Murphy, Robin Swann and Michelle O’Neill — there seemed to be a determined and coordinated effort to present unity. Swann could have ‘had a go’ (responding to O’Neill’s criticism of him the previous evening) but didn’t. It was a first name event. They spoke in collective terms and acknowledged the scale of the challenges they faced. Crucially — because they’ve said similar things in previous conferences — they sounded serious and sincere this time.
The next few weeks are likely to be horrendous, with a scale of misery, ill-health, pressure and death — most of it happening within a fairly brief timescale — not seen in our collective lifetime. Northern Ireland is a small place and many of us will know someone who has died.
All of us will have to rise to the challenges and thousands will bear some terribly hard personal blows — not least of which will be not being with loved ones when they die, or when they are buried. Which means that there will be no toleration of bickering, point-scoring or same-old, same-old politics from our political leaders. Extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership. That, I think, is the most powerfully unifying hope we can have right now.
First Minister Arlene Foster has said the Executive needs to be united after deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill criticised the region's health minister for his handling of the coronavirus emergency.