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Diarmaid Ferriter: Farcical Covid strategy does not bode well for a ‘Shared Island’

Coronavirus restrictions are worth little if North and South continue on divergent paths

It was dispiriting last week to hear one of the most impressive politicians in Ireland speak of her despair about the rottenness of Northern Ireland's political culture and the temptation to walk away from it.

Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party, and Minister for Justice in the Northern Ireland Executive, has long practice cutting through the self-serving pieties that emanate from the Executive. The brinkmanship on display over Covid public health regulations last week left Long "beyond despair . . . I think anyone with an ounce of sense or sanity or scruples will have questioned their participation in an executive which patently failed the people of Northern Ireland".

The DUP's use of the cross-community veto mechanism to object to Minister for Health Robin Swann's Covid response proposals was, she further maintained, "a perversion" of the Belfast Agreement's intent. She was only short of saying of the Northern Ireland Executive what the co-founder of the Alliance Party in 1970, Oliver Napier, said about Belfast Corporation in 1971: that it was a "chamber of horrors".

Hume’s legacy

Ironically, Long's articulation of her despondency came at the same time as the unveiling of a new foundation to commemorate the legacy of John Hume and his wife Pat. It will be based in Derry and aims to use the principles that motivated them to "inspire the next generation of peacemakers". The chairman of the foundation, Seán Farren, suggested: "The values and ideals of partnership, reconciliation, inclusion and social justice that John and Pat embraced throughout their lives can help support our young people to navigate the profound challenges of their time."


Hume, too, during dark days, thought of walking away from politics. The mood of drift and despair in the aftermath of the failed powersharing experiment was recorded by diplomat Seán Donlon for the Irish government in the spring of 1974 after he had stayed at Hume's house, where he witnessed "depression, frustration and despair . . . Hume and others are even talking of leaving politics". It was partly this situation which led Hume to look outside Ireland, and his meetings and perseverance paid off, as by the end of that decade he had managed to break half a century of silence by the White House on Northern Ireland.

Nphet and the Government are rightly coming in for harsh criticism about the credibility of their plans

The cultivation of those links has led to decades of US contributions to the debate about Northern Irish and Anglo-Irish issues, most recently this week with former president Bill Clinton virtually communicating his usual reminders of a hardwon peace and the need to protect it. There has been optimism, too, that with Joe Biden's election there will be a "friend" of Ireland back in the White House.

These positive narratives are framed around the idea that with Brexit complications ongoing, it gives Ireland an added shield, but in focusing on that, we seem to ignore what is under our noses, and the ongoing farce of the absence of an all-island response to Covid.


Hume was famed, of course, for his focus on people rather than territory – “The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people”– but at the moment, it is geography and the physical rather than the political map that should matter. Nphet and the Government are rightly coming in for harsh criticism from various quarters about the credibility of their plans and reluctance to chart a clear path in relation to Covid strategy. But there seems too much reluctance to acknowledge a blinding reality: that no matter what levels of restrictions or routes to easing them are formulated, they are worth little if North and South continue on divergent paths. Such is the nature of the very thing that has been defended to the hilt since the Brexit vote in 2016 – the invisible, porous Border – that it makes a mockery of a dual public health strategy on the island. Nphet has made much of our “slippage” recently and dishes out the admonishments, but why is it so silent, given its public health remit and much-vaunted reliance on science and evidence, on the partitioning of Covid?

In tandem with this anomaly, we are being asked to consider seriously the Taoiseach's "Shared Island" initiative as a long-term aspiration, but surely that very description was tailor-made for the crisis we are living through now? Epidemiologist Dr Gabriel Scally has been consistently vocal about this for months and last week called on Dublin and Stormont Ministers to "sit in a room and hammer out an agreement" as an all-island approach is the "only way" to effectively tackle Covid. It is a great shame that more do not join in his sensible call and a greater shame that it appears to be such an insurmountable challenge due to both the compartmentalisation of the Border question by the Irish Government and the dismal Executive Naomi Long so despairs of.