The Irish Times view on Northern Ireland’s crisis: divided and incoherent

Arlene Foster wants to align with a Britain that has swung between libertarian refusal to curtail movement, belated discipline, and what may be panic

At the joint briefings they share, Michelle O’Neill has complained – to frowns and head-shaking from Arlene Foster – about the pace of schools closure, scarce testing and businesses producing inessential goods remaining open. Photograph: Pacemaker Belfast

At the joint briefings they share, Michelle O’Neill has complained – to frowns and head-shaking from Arlene Foster – about the pace of schools closure, scarce testing and businesses producing inessential goods remaining open. Photograph: Pacemaker Belfast

 

Public health specialist Dr Gabriel Scally called yesterday for the Covid-19 response to be harmonised across the border. With strong credentials in both Britain and Ireland, Scally voices anxiety felt strongly in the north, bubbling under among hard-pressed health officials.

The Northern Ireland legislative administration at Stormont is less than three months into renewed existence after breakdown and tortuous re-instatement. Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin fronts up a five-party executive, a “coalition” of the mutually mistrustful.

Although the smaller parties hold several crucial ministries, with the Ulster Unionists’ sole representative in charge of Health, First and Deputy First ministers DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill attract most attention, and criticism, chiefly for disagreeing.

But it is mainly unionists who want the executive to appear united, to sustain public morale and its own status. By contrast, nationalist/republican unhappiness with divergence from the Republic dominates the tone of radio phone-ins, some polling and the largely Catholic-readership Irish News. O’Neill’s complaints about following London rather than Dublin are in tune with the GAA and the Catholic school sector. Underwhelming pre-crisis, in daily appearances on the crisis she has sounded more collected and thoughtful than Foster.

The Scally argument cuts through politics. He is specific about contradictions. A 14-day minimum self-isolation prescribed for someone with syptoms in Lifford but seven days across the bridge in Strabane is no trivial difference. Northern abandonment of community testing and contact tracing, he says, is in essence Whitehall strategy. He calls its inspiration in the supposed development of “herd immunity” an approach “regarded by many senior public health physicians as dangerously flawed.”

At the joint briefings they share, O’Neill has complained – to frowns and head-shaking from Foster – about the pace of schools closure, scarce testing and businesses producing inessential goods remaining open.

One undoubted O’Neill misstep was to appear with other executive members at an announcement that the schools should stay open, then declare the opposite next morning. She already knew her community disagreed.

Foster, trading on sentiment about coherent leadership, has faced less questioning. She wants to align with a Britain that has swung between libertarian refusal to curtail movement, belated discipline, and what may be panic. O’Neill has a simpler task. Her community feels no need to look to Boris Johnson. Instead people look across the border and see a government on its last legs – yet one with a coherent and popular public stance.

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