Sinn Féin’s stand on Covid is facing increasing questions from political rivals
‘They approach the pandemic in the same way they approach every other issue, thinking how they can make a political gain’
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. The party argues it has forced the Government to “row back” on PUP cuts, to reintroduce protections for renters, and continues to demand mortgage breaks for borrowers affected by the pandemic
Describing coronavirus as the “crisis of a century” in March, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said it was time for the country to pull together. The pandemic was not a time for anyone to be “throwing shapes”, she declared.
Seven months later Sinn Féin’s support for the Government’s Covid-19 plans has faded significantly, with the party accusing the Government of dangerously rejecting public health advice and offering incoherent messaging to the public.
In turn Government parties charge that Sinn Féin is using the pandemic to make “political gain” and of “instilling fear” and confusion in an already anxious and overwrought public.
In September, Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers points out, it was McDonald who was the one who called for pubs and restaurants to remain open at a time when Dublin was entering Level 3 restrictions, while the Government held to a tougher line.
“[They have] been responsible for slow decision-making, poor leadership and divided government in Northern Ireland on Covid-19. Let’s not allow their approach south of the Border.”
Differences in Sinn Féin’s approach North and South have been highlighted numerous times by Fine Gael, especially the different positions the party has adopted on whether schools should be closed or not.
In the North it is believed that Sinn Féin actively favoured closing schools for between four to six weeks. In the end the two-week closure that was ultimately agreed by the Executive represented a compromise struck with the DUP.
By comparison, Sinn Féin’s education spokesman Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire says Sinn Féin supports keeping them open in the South if testing and tracing amongst students improves, and if schools get the supports they need.
Sinn Féin also faced criticism from Fine Gael over the differences in the levels of welfare supports available to Covid-affected workers in both jurisdictions – though the charge is less solid since the North’s figures are set by the treasury in London .
Fianna Fáil’s Chambers says the “hypocrisy of their approach is finally surfacing and people are seeing it. In the North they are happy to take a different approach. Their response is contradictory depending on the hour of the day.”
Ó Laoghaire says that while it is “not ideal having different public health advice North and South”, the fact remains that Nphet (the National Public Health Emergency Team) in Dublin did not recommend closing schools.
Questions and criticism are fine, says Chambers, but a strategy that aims to undermine the Government’s approach and instilling fear is dangerous and unbecoming. Far from being the most constructive Opposition in the State’s history, Sinn Féin have been the most destructive.
“Their response is completely political. They approach the pandemic in the same way they approach every other issue, thinking how they can make a political gain,” says the Mayo politician.
In Government Buildings some senior officials believe that Sinn Féin has been deliberately vague – or, as one influential figure put it, “dithering”– when asked repeatedly on radio and TV about the scale of public health curbs that should be in place.
The suspicion is that Sinn Féin does not want to alienate voters at a time when they are doing well in poll ratings, and so is deliberately seeking to remain in the middle of the road, hoping not to make a potentially damaging impression.
Sinn Féin, however, argues that it has forced the Government to “row back” on PUP cuts, to reintroduce protections for renters and still continues to demand mortgage breaks for borrowers affected by the pandemic.
It insists none of the criticisms levelled against it are true, adding that it has supported public health restrictions coupled with economic supports for those affected from “the get-go”.
It also says it has not had full access to Government data.
However, the latter defence was called into question this week when it emerged in a report in the Irish Independent that McDonald had left a three-hour Covid-19 briefing for Opposition leaders after just one hour.
Such conduct is “hypocritical and disingenuous”, said Fine Gael TD Colm Burke, and is “the typical Sinn Féin thing of waiting to see what way the wind was blowing before committing to a public position”.
However, Sinn Féin argues that McDonald was present for all of chief medical officer Tony Holohan’s presentation, and that she arrived on the call at 4pm as scheduled and left after 90 minutes. The defence is rejected by others who were on the call.
“The excuse of not having information is not credible. At all. She was on the meeting with chief medical officer and deputy chief medical officer, and she left early. All the statistics, all the predictions, were shared.”
If there is strain in Dublin there is, however, relative harmony in the Northern Executive, even though there will always be tensions between five parties that have diametrically different positions.
Insiders say that in March there was a view that it was four parties against one – Sinn Féin being the one – but the relationship between First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has improved as they knuckled down to find solutions to Covid-19.
Last week the DUP and Sinn Féin had to hold late-night talks to hammer out a lockdown for the North. The fact that they did so is seen as an achievement and a sign that they can reach compromise in the interests of public health.
All of this is despite Sinn Féin’s calls for an all-island virus strategy, something which the DUP looks upon dispassionately. Not even the coronavirus, for all its obstinacy, can overcome those particular hurdles.