The greater good is no longer great or good for many

As the lockdown drags on people’s unity is beginning to crack and the fissures threaten to become chasms

The widespread national unity of the early stages of lockdown appears to be splintering as special interest groups and those with grievances find their voice.

Long before social media empowered cranks and weirdos while helping to exaggerate fissures in society, the letters pages of newspapers provided a more civilised platform for national debate. It was Twitter without the twits.

The letters pages of The Irish Times in recent weeks have given a timely insight into some of the divisions opening up in society over easing the lockdown, as different factions lose patience with the stifling virus restrictions.

The exchanges have not just been limited to hot-button debates such as reopening schools, or business arguments over why one sector gets to reopen early while another must stay shut. Readers’ letters also suggest sharp divisions emerging over sports, the facilitation of religious worship and funerals, and the casual infantilisation of our cocooning the over-70s, who are regularly discussed over their heads as if they are were incapable of acting sensibly .



The growing push by religious lay people to reopen churches for mass, contrary to the strangely obsequious stance of church leaders, is one clear sign that the national unity we saw earlier in the crisis is beginning to fracture.

Religion is always divisive in Irish society. If religious divisions are bubbling up to the surface again, then perhaps it is just another sign that society is trying to find its feet.

Robert MacCarthy, the former Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, wrote in to the paper on Tuesday to lament that churches will have to wait until the end of July to reopen under the Government’s plan, along with hairdressers and marts: “The Government seems to think that religion is a hobby, not something central to the lives of a great many people.”

He was admonished the following day in a letter from a Dr Brendan McDonnell of Dublin 8, proving that not even a virus can prevent the enduring tensions between men of religion and science. The doctor pointed out that churches have been “at the centre” of virus outbreaks across the world.

He weighed the former dean’s incredulousness that churches could be considered the same as cow marts and salons, and said “the coronavirus particle sees no difference between these locations”. He ended with the suggestion that religious people may be selfish if they want to reopen churches sooner: “Each new infection has ramifications beyond the individual.”

It's all a long way from the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's rallying cry in his speech on St Patrick's Day, when he implored us to be "at our best when things are at their worst".

The doctor was taken to task in Friday’s paper by Pádraig McCarthy of Dublin 16, who agreed that the virus indeed does not distinguish between hair salons and churches. But nor does it distinguish between churches and those other establishments that will be allowed reopen earlier, such as hardware shops.


About one million people each week normally turn out for religious worship, which is central to their personal dignity. The longer they are deprived of it, the deeper the fissures around that debate will grow.

Sports is another arena where people are often united in their disunity, and divisions have emerged recently over the delays reopening for horse racing, which isn't due until June 29th. On Wednesday, horse trainer Arthur Moore of Naas wrote to the letters page to complain "out of disappointment and sheer frustration" that the flat racing season can't return earlier.

He was backed up on Friday in a letter from Denise Rearden from Kildare. But hers sat alongside another missive from an L Kavanagh in Dublin 14, whose contribution hinted at the tensions in wider society over the sport and its non-adherence to distancing rules earlier in the outbreak: "I'm still waiting for an apology for the astonishing display of hubris and arrogance that was Cheltenham."

Golfers who live just outside the 5km travel radius are writing in to wonder why they can’t drive to their local course, but others who live closer can. Hairdressers are formally lobbying the State to open sooner than August 10th, by which time we will all be Rolling Stones.

In the business sphere, the reality of the crisis engulfing the economy has caused several cracks to appear in the previous unity between the public and private sectors.

But now dog groomers are getting in on the act, too, writing in to The Irish Times last week to ask why they could not trim the pelts of pooches, from whom they obviously don’t need to social distance.

In the business sphere, the reality of the crisis engulfing the economy has caused several cracks to appear in the previous unity between the public and private sectors. Publicans, for example, are outraged that restaurants are to be allowed open sooner, when their establishments are just as capable of table service and social distancing as an eatery. Publican Charlie Chawke last week broke ranks and said he would reopen some of his establishments anyway, as they have restaurants licences in addition to liquor permits.


The wider tourism industry, which was sacrificed for the greater good at the outset by the lockdown when most travel was grounded, is bound to become a hotbed of grievance unless it receives massive and ongoing State support.

There are also divisions opening up in the political sphere, a sure sign that we may be feeling a little less afraid and perhaps just a tiny bit more like our old selves.

For example, the Health Services Executive and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) spent weeks playing down rumours of divisions between them, such as over the setting up of an adequate testing and tracing regime. Letters released this week proved those tensions were there all the time.

Nphet chairman, Dr Tony Holohan, who appeared to be in danger of becoming a national treasure just four weeks ago, is now facing growing public criticism over perceptions of his massive influence over the Government's cautious stance in unwinding restrictions.

Arguments over the relative merits of his power have become one of the new battlegrounds online for perhaps the biggest fissure that has emerged in our society: the split between those who seem to be afraid of any easing of lockdown at all, and those who want reopening accelerated and see the fears as just another set of risks that will have to be managed one way or the other.

It’s all a long way from the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s rallying cry in his speech on St Patrick’s Day, when he implored us to be “at our best when things are at their worst”. Now, many of us just seem to be at each other’s throats.

But if this just means we are reasserting ourselves and are no longer paralysed by fear, then perhaps it is not such a bad thing.