The disuniting of the kingdom quickened pace this week, leaving the prime minister in freefall after his incoherent Sunday night speech, while the first minister of the Northern Ireland executive, DUP leader Arlene Foster, joined her Sinn Féin deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, and their counterparts in Scotland and Wales in deploying parachutes. No, they said, they would not be changing the message to the public to “stay alert” in response to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. The message from Belfast would remain, “stay at home.”
The DUP’s gravitas on the crisis had been embarrassingly undermined when one of its MLAs was spotted shopping online for shoes during a crucial meeting of the health committee last week. (He apologised.) But Foster and O’Neill landed quite gracefully in the assembly chamber at Stormont on Tuesday where they delivered an agreed and detailed schedule for emerging from lockdown, with no set dates, and a proviso that the current rate of infection would have to reduce significantly before they would proceed with any changes.
Foster did try to blur her abandonment of the DUP’s formerly rigid adherence to its traditional stance that Northern Ireland is British and will behave accordingly. There would be “slight differences”, she said. Northern Ireland’s moves would be “nuanced”. But there can be no doubting the symbolic significance of what has happened. Even the staunchest of unionists can no longer follow a blundering leader willing to risk committing his people to disaster while chundering on about “good solid British common sense”.
The SDLP leader, Foyle MP Colum Eastwood, put it bluntly. Boris Johnson’s plan was “nonsense”, he said. Eastwood is from Derry, on the border with Ireland. His constituents include some of the most disadvantaged people in the UK. He has been a strong advocate for an all-island approach to Covid-19, for obvious reasons – not least the irrelevance to a virus of a political boundary. However, the DUP has rejected this out of hand. While the Republic has largely followed the health guidance offered by the World Health Organization, Northern Ireland has taken its advice from the British government. The Ulster Unionist health minister, Robin Swann, spoke of “the science that is applicable to Northern Ireland” as if different science works 100 miles down the road. While the Republic of Ireland ramped up community testing, albeit inadequately, Northern Ireland dropped it, along with contact tracing, and is still failing to provide reliable statistics. Though national comparisons are difficult, the per capita death rate from coronavirus in the Irish Republic remains significantly lower than the UK’s.
Sinn Féin is, clearly, an all-Ireland party, but its attitude to this debate is complicated: the party did exceptionally well in the the February elections in Ireland but has been shunned by the other big parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who refuse even to discuss going into government with Sinn Féin, even though both support the power-sharing arrangements in the North. This hypocrisy, and its position in opposition, means that Sinn Féin will not willingly praise any actions in the crisis by taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and his caretaker government.
In the early days of the pandemic, the newly restored Northern Ireland executive looked precarious when Sinn Féin broke ranks and advocated for the shutdown of schools in line with Dublin – while the DUP stuck with London’s initial policy of keeping them open. There have been other rocky moments. But they have had to rub along, however uncomfortably.
Both parties know that they suffered at the polls in the last Westminster elections because of public anger at their failure to deal with the crisis in Northern Ireland’s health services, which led to nurses going on strike. It was a DUP health minister who introduced cuts to wages which left Northern Irish nurses worse off than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Some were on zero-hour contracts, some were relying on foodbanks. Along with other austerity measures this led to staff shortages and curtailed services. As the NHS in Northern Ireland entered the Covid-19 crisis it was described by health unions as unsafe for patients.
Last year, speaking about Johnson’s Brexit machinations, Foster said her party had been obliged to send the prime minister “to the naughty step”. We must be grateful that in this infinitely worse situation, she has belatedly realised that Johnson neither understands nor cares about Northern Ireland. She and O’Neill, finally presenting a convincingly united front, have taken an important step towards protecting their people from the mortal threat this indifference represents.
• Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist