Northern Ireland: Pandemic shows parties can ‘work together’ – Foster

SF’s Michelle O’Neill also says response has brought parties ‘closer together’

First minister Arlene Foster (left) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill walk together as they arrive at Stormont. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

First minister Arlene Foster (left) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill walk together as they arrive at Stormont. File photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

Tackling the coronavirus pandemic has brought the North’s political parties closer together, the First and Deputy First Ministers have said.

In a joint interview with Sky News on Sunday, the DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill said the Executive had been faced with the outbreak of the virus shortly after it was restored in January, but their response had demonstrated they could work closely together.

“We have shown that we can work together in difficult times,” said Ms Foster. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing that we’ve had a global pandemic, but I think it shows that we have come together and that we can work together in the way that we have.”

“I believe that the past number of months, because of Covid-19, has probably brought us closer together,” said Ms O’Neill, “insofar as we are having to work around the clock to take this on.”

She was in government “to make it work”; while both held different political views, she said, “it’s our job to govern for the people here. Whilst I make the case for Irish unity and Arlene will make the case for maintaining the link with Britain, that’s just politics.”

Care homes

Ms Foster also said tackling coronavirus in care homes remained a “critical battlefield” for the entire Executive. “We still very much want to deal with those issues in a pro-active way.”

On Friday a number of frail and elderly residents were relocated from a nursing home in Belfast due to ongoing concerns which related in part to its management of the coronavirus outbreak.

According to figures released by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), just over half of the 664 deaths they recorded until May 15th took place in care homes.

There have been disagreements in the Northern Executive – particularly over the timing of closing schools – as well as over whether the North should follow UK policy and practice in handling the crisis, or seek to align its approach to that of the Irish government.

Yet in recent weeks the relationship between the North’s leaders has improved; as the chairs were being set out to ensure social distancing ahead of an Executive committee meeting earlier this week, Ms Foster joked that she and Ms O’Neill had been seeing so much of each other, they were practically the same household.

Yesterday she and Ms O’Neill published a joint letter in Northern Ireland’s three main newspapers thanking the public for the sacrifices they have made to protect others during the lockdown.

“I think at different times there perhaps was different emphasis but not necessarily a difference in approach,” said Ms O’Neill, “because I think we all shared the same objective of trying to save lives.

“We were thrust into this very quickly after the Executive being restored, and that in itself was challenging, but I think that Executive colleagues have worked really closely together to try and turn our way through this as best we can with that one objective, to save lives.”

Devolution

Both politicians were also on the same page when asked about the differences between the North’s roadmap for exiting lockdown and the plans in Ireland and the UK, stressing that their role was to work on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

“If devolution is to mean anything it is about doing what’s right locally for your own people and what we have to do is to listen to the medical and scientific evidence and then make our decisions based on that,” Ms Foster said.

“We’re elected here,” said Ms O’Neill. “We’re elected to represent the people that sent us here and to take up government departments and actually make decisions on their behalf, so you can look to London and you can look to Dublin and you can pick good and bad in all approaches, but for me this is about our own response to Covid-19.”

However she added: “We do live on an island, we have a geographical advantage, it’s important that we use it to our people’s best advantage in our battle against Covid-19.”

The first steps towards the easing of lockdown restrictions began in Northern Ireland this week. The current regulations are due to be reviewed on May 28th.

Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill revealed their mothers both had been admitted to hospital during the lockdown. Ms Foster said that the two things she missed most were her hairdresser and congregational singing in church.

“We miss the ordinary things that you take for granted and after this is over I hope people don’t take those sort of things for granted, that they actually do value their freedom and their freedom to do all of the things we haven’t been able to do over the last eight weeks.”