There have been repeated calls for an “all-Ireland” approach to covid on this island, but we already have one – both jurisdictions are committed to half-measures that will inevitably prolong the crisis.
What will it take for the governments north and south of the border to work together in a meaningful way? We can remove pandemic from the list of possibilities. We now know that even when faced with a natural disaster, which has claimed more lives than the Troubles and threatens the economic security of everybody living on this island, the preferred response to any suggestion of co-operation is, “no”.
As the public comes to terms with the prospect of another year lost to covid, politicians seem more concerned with saving face and scoring political points than embarking on an elimination strategy so that life can return to normal.
Sinn Féin and the DUP barley tolerate each other at the best of times, but this political animus is no excuse for the dereliction of duty in the North’s handling of the disease that has seen the death rate there reach three times that of the Republic.
The DUP’s apparent view is that a joined-up response, between both jurisdictions, would amount to some kind of dilution of their Britishness – as if there is a separate orange virus and green virus that adheres to one’s cells on the basis of nationality.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin have the temerity to lambast Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar for a failure to implement an all-island strategy, despite the fact that they are a member of the Executive in the North which refuses to agree it.
The Dublin government does not have the power to swoop into the North and unilaterally implement a health strategy. If we want a co-ordinated response, it will require buy in from the Assembly and that will require negotiation and compromise – concepts that appear to be anathema to the politicians in power.
Writing in The Irish Times yesterday, Mary Lou McDonald called on the government here to initiate planning for a united Ireland – because, what better way to convince the DUP to come to the table during this precarious time than raise the spectre of a border poll and a united Ireland?
“Common sense dictates that we must meet the challenges of the virus on an all-Ireland basis in the immediate term; including in respect of international travel. We can lose no more time in rising to this challenge,” she wrote.
Common sense may dictate it, but what is Sinn Féin doing to convince its partners in Stormont of the merits of this plan? Because they are the ones who need to be convinced and Sinn Féin are among the only political parties who can do it.
I can’t have been the only one who read McDonald’s piece and thought plans for a united Ireland are entirely fanciful when we can’t even get agreement on a temporary all-island approach to the suppression of a killer disease.
This is not to suggest our own government are entirely blameless for the current morass. Politicians on this side of the border have raised the hackles of the DUP by unfairly criticising aspects of the North’s response to the pandemic – even when that criticism is unwarranted.
A case in point is Micheál Martin alleging, on RTE’s Brendan O’Connor show over the weekend, there was no testing for the UK variant in the North as it wasn’t “as big an issue” there. This was met with a swift rebuke from both the Northern Ireland Department of Health and Arlene Foster.
When Ireland was performing well, and boasted the lowest rate of covid transmission in the EU at the end of November, government ministers here could lord it over the North’s performance with some justification.
However, now that our rate of transmission is among the highest in the world, it’s time for ministers here to eat some humble pie and admit they have made grievous mistakes in their handling of the pandemic.
If we want to move forward and meet this challenge in a manner that assures the best chance of success for everybody on this island, then a change of both tone and strategy is needed. No one has a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to tackling a novel virus that is barely a year old. A good starting point would be an admission that everyone has made mistakes, but that we need to learn from them instead of continually repeating them.
The Dublin government has made much of the fact that the porous border is a barrier to a zero covid strategy, yet has refused to share relevant travel locator documents, of passengers flying into Dublin, with its counterparts in the North. This is despite the fact that Micheál Martin publicly promised to address this issue as far back as last July.
Finally resolving this matter would be a sign of good faith that the rhetoric about the need for a co-ordinated approach is more than mere lip service or, as DUP MP Ian Paisley Junior described it, “all mouth and no trousers”.
While politicians butt heads and jockey for position, what the public wants, north and south of the border, is a coherent approach that maximises the potential for the elimination of the virus. Above all the public wants to see a plan that restores some semblance of hope that this disaster can be managed. What we have instead is a circular firing squad of politicians who spend their time squabbling and making excuses.
Rather than highlighting all of the difficulties and obstacles to co-ordinating strategies, politicians should work to identify areas where co-operation can be achieved and then aim to build up from this foundation.
This is essential because of one inescapable fact – no one will be safe on this island until everyone is safe. We can’t beat covid alone. It requires co-operation.