Mike Tomlinson is a professor emeritus at Queen's University Belfast and a veteran community activist. He penned the first major report into unemployment in West Belfast, the Obair Report, in the 1980s.
He has been monitoring governmental responses to the coronavirus throughout 2020.
The most memorable and important resolve of the 1916 Proclamation has to be the commitment “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.
All eyes are on Washington, not for the presentation of seamróg at the White House, but because of the American Rescue Plan. This social and economic relief package is remarkable both for its scale and for its focus. Whether this is a post-Covid or a living-with-Covid intervention, time will tell. But there is no question that, in a matter of weeks, President Biden has managed to put together a massive package of measures which has 70 per cent support among voters.
While heads were turned for the Budget at Westminster last week, the swagger of British sovereignty struck another blow against the implementation of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. This was less about the substance of the delayed implementation of the Irish Sea border and more about attitude. Nor does it matter whether Gove or Frost is in the driving seat: the point is the UK Government took unilateral action outside the procedures painstakingly agreed in the Protocol. This is hopeless for the trust that any international agreement requires for successful implementation. But the real danger is that the latest UK move heralds a strategy of wrecking the Protocol. If the EU is unable to secure UK cooperation in defending the integrity of the single market at the Irish Sea border, then there is the possibility of drawing a new border between Ireland and mainland Europe.
Two weeks is a long time in the union unit. Cummings’ ally Oliver Lewis was appointed to head up the unit only two weeks’ ago, but has resigned after being accused of leaking against Gove. Lewis, Lord Frost’s deputy in the EU negotiations, was the architect of the ‘let’s legislate to break international law’ policy in the Internal Market Bill, a crude attempt to put pressure on the EU which backfired spectacularly.
How is Project Union going? Let’s begin with events on the eastern side of the Irish sea border which are mainly to do with preventing Scottish independence. The Minister for the Union decided to visit Scotland on 28 January even though Nicola Sturgeon said the visit wasn’t essential – under Covid restrictions, crossing the English/Scottish border is for essential trips only.
The increased chatter about Irish unity in the past few weeks is striking. Some of this is of the ‘soft’ unity variety: the pragmatic call for a common approach to preventing fresh imports of the COVID virus and its variants on to the island of Ireland.
What is it about UK government ministers that they are compelled to claim everything they do is ‘world-beating’? First we had PM Johnson’s promise (20 May 2020) of the world-beating NHS Test and Trace system that would be in place by 1 June, having stopped tracing and community testing on 12 March.
What has 2020 taught us about managing COVID-19 on the island of Ireland? Here are a few pointers. 1. To compare COVID-19 death rates North and South is to ‘weaponise’ the pandemic for the Irish nationalist cause and to collude in thinking that a united Ireland is inevitable (thank you Lord Caine). But to ask the question, ‘how does Northern Ireland compare to the UK’ or ‘in world terms’, is perfectly normal with no connotations whatsoever. 2. For COVID-19 there are ’four nations’, of which N. Ireland is one. For rugby there are ‘six nations’, of which Ireland (the island) is one. 3. With COVID-19 it is important to know the difference between ‘mass gatherings’ and ‘mass’ gatherings, especially when it comes to dishing out the blame for ‘super-spreader’ events. We are now talking about events in June, after Wave One – not to be confused with gatherings, such as the Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool v Atletico Madrid match, which were allowed to go ahead as the first wave took off in early March. Nor to be confused with the gatherings that in September were exempted from England’s ‘rule of six’, such as Polo and hunting & shooting parties. 4. Some ‘mass gatherings’ are more legitimate than others. The Black Lives Matter protests in Derry and Belfast, for which PSNI issued 71 fines, were actively discouraged by the police. A week later (13 June), Protect Our Monuments, which PSNI intelligence correctly anticipated would be ‘predominantly, if not exclusively, from the Protestant, Unionist Loyalist Community’ (Police Ombudsman), gathered shoulder to shoulder to surround Belfast City Hall, in case anyone fancied a pop at ‘the famine queen’ (please don’t – I need to take a photo for a book). PSNI encouraged POM to proceed and ‘attended’ on the day. No fines were issued.