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Newton Emerson: Stormont bemused by Republic’s stonewalling on Covid data

The Republic has never taken cross-Border co-operation on Covid-19 seriously

Genuine mystery surrounds the Irish Government's lengthy refusal to share Covid passenger data with Northern Ireland. The Government will not explain it and nobody else can see what the issue might be.

Health authorities in the North want access to the passenger locator forms filled in by people arriving in the Republic who are travelling on to Northern Ireland, so that self-isolation requirements can be followed up.

The first known case of Covid north of the Border arrived via Dublin Airport.

There is no legal obstacle to sharing the information. Arlene Foster, the DUP First Minister, says this was confirmed by the Republic's Attorney General at a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council as far back as last July.


Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister, told the Assembly this Monday some legal concerns had been raised but “we believe that those issues have been resolved”.

Nor should it be impractical to share the information. Forms with a northern destination address should not be hard to sort out from the pile.

Requests for action have been made “repeatedly” at monthly meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and to the Taoiseach directly, according to O’Neill.

With no progress at the council, last summer the Northern Executive asked for the matter to be escalated to a summit of the UK and Irish governments. Again, nothing happened. Robin Swann, the UUP Minister for Health, has also had no luck raising the matter in person and in correspondence with Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

The open Border has been a useful excuse for the Irish Government not to introduce stricter controls

There is increasing urgency for a solution as Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland introduce negative Covid test requirements for travellers, with varying sets of self-isolation periods that cannot be enforced without data-sharing.

Stormont is united in bemusement and frustration at the Republic’s stonewalling. Foster and O’Neill have begun complaining openly about it in joint press conferences, creating a novel political spectacle.

Throughout the epidemic, nationalists have accused unionists of obstructing North-South co-operation. Now the leaders of unionism and nationalism in the North are appearing together to plea for southern co-operation. Both are taking care to head off accusations of sly constitutional point-scoring, to which northern ears are perfectly attuned.

Foster has said nothing critical of the Republic, apart from regretting its failure to engage. O’Neill is calling for “a two islands approach”, in contrast to her party’s defining one-island approach. There has been no hostile speculation in public about southern motivations, while private speculation has been more perplexed than angry.

Not working

Suggestions I have heard range from the obvious: that the locator forms system is not working and the Irish Government does not want anyone to know about it; to the arcane: that perhaps it is something to do with public ownership of Dublin Airport.

This range of views reflects the fact that people at Stormont are truly baffled.

Whatever the obstruction, southern politicians rather than southern officials are seen to be the hold-up.

The open Border has been a useful excuse for the Irish Government not to introduce stricter controls at the Republic's ports and airports. However, senior Ministers only began citing this excuse from last October, when Tánaiste Leo Varadkar bounced his colleagues into it with comments during an RTÉ interview with Claire Byrne.

All this has occurred while the Irish Government has been promoting a general 'shared island' policy

Prior to that, Ministers had been consistent that travel restrictions were viewed as counterproductive under scientific and EU advice, regardless of the Border.

The refusal to share data predates this change in message, so any apparent convenience in blaming Northern Ireland looks more like a coincidence than a conspiracy. In any case, the excuse is about to evaporate as the North introduces stricter controls of its own.

All this has occurred while the Irish Government has been promoting a general “shared island” policy, full of fine words and intentions on North and South working together. This makes it as absurd as it is grotesque not to share readily available information on a matter of life and death.

Perhaps there is no great mystery involved. The Republic has never taken cross-Border co-operation on Covid seriously, failing to even notify Stormont as it has introduced and lifted lockdown measures, let alone working to co-ordinate them. Last May, the previous Irish government said the people of the Republic had to be informed of its decisions first. There is no sign this view has changed with a new administration.

Although it would be understandable for a sovereign state to set itself above Stormont’s glorified county council, the Irish Government proclaims to want a North-South partnership. The institutions of the Belfast Agreement bring in the UK government to address any imbalances in sovereign authority, as Sinn Féin’s O’Neill is plaintively pointing out.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that when meaningful decisions are required, the Republic’s political culture simply cannot countenance accommodating the North in any way that might oblige the South to suffer the slightest inconvenience.

Any ear can hear the constitutional implications of that.