AS we speed towards the first anniversary of the Covid pandemic, we look back and we see that countless mistakes have been made, countless missteps taken and countless chances missed.
IT’S no surprise that our hospitals are struggling to cope after the Christmas relaxation of Covid restrictions which just about everybody knew would see us arrive at this point. There are signs that the seriousness of the current position is starting to hit home in places that matter, with an increasing number of supermarkets either putting in place stricter mask-compliance protocols, restricting the number of people allowed in-store, or both.Despite the fact that we are at the most critical period thus far in a pandemic which is heading rapidly towards its first anniversary, there are encouraging signs that the R infection rate – recently as high as 1.8 – is beginning to head in the right direction. And with the schools closed, a stricter lockdown in place and no potentially problematic bank holidays or feast days in prospect until St Valentine’s Day in a month’s time, there’s now a chance for a clear run at the pandemic that could represent the biggest chance for advance in the past ten months. And this is where police enforcement – or lack of it – is going to play a crucial role. The First Minister and deputy First Minister put on a welcome show of unity on Tuesday in Dungannon, after which they met PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to discuss the police’s role in the crucial fortnight to come. Quite simply, while the vast majority of us can be trusted to show the community spirit required to keep ourselves, our families, friends and neighbours as safe as possible, we’ve all seen with our own eyes that there is a worryingly significant minority out there who believe their right to exercise personal choice when it comes to masks, travel and distancing trumps their responsibility to those around them. And if these people continue to flaunt the regulations then they have to be dealt with in an increasingly robust way. The amount of discretion being handed to individual police officers is huge and we will inevitably see anomalies and discrepancies in how people are dealt with, how confrontations are handled. Which is why it is vital that the PSNI keeps a close eye on the situation on the ground and improves on instances of good practice while working hard to learn from examples of bad practice. Also in the diary of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill is a round-table meeting with representatives of the retail sector at which they say they will reinforce the need to “comply with the spirit and letter of the agreement”. While the large supermarkets, which have seen sales soar during the pandemic, can afford to put Covid ‘stewards’ on the shop floor, smaller retailers can’t. And it would be a travesty if retail workers – many of them on the minimum wage – were required to act as security staff on top of their existing duties. It seems that every week we are on the edge of the precipice, but that is the nature of a pandemic: disaster is just a step away, as is redemption. The decision on what step to take is entirely in our own hands. Let’s make the right choice.
THE deeply unsatisfactory compromise arrived at last Friday on Covid restrictions must qualify as one of the shortest distances a can has ever been kicked down any road. Even before the rancour has subsided, even as the blame is still being angrily apportioned, we are back at the point where another agreement must be reached, another deadline met. If anyone thought or hoped that the DUP would be chastened by an outraged public response to their decision to deploy a veto twice to block an agreement on restrictions by the other four parties, they were to be disappointed. Party leader Arlene Foster on Tuesday said she hoped that a decision on restrictions could be arrived at by Friday in a “collaborative, collegiate way” but refused to rule out the use of the veto mechanism for a third time. Last week four out of the five parties agreed to a restrictions template put forward by Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and Health Minister Robin Swann; the DUP alone objected. It appears that unfortunately Mrs Foster is under the impression that a “collaborative and collegiate” process is the same as a unanimous one, which it is not.
IN the end, for the DUP it all comes down to religion. It always has and – sad to report – it seems now that it always will. It takes a man whose politics have been forged in the hot-gospel furnace of fundamental Protestantism to come out in the middle of a raging pandemic and reduce a lethally complex combination of virology, epidemiology, psychology, geography, politics and class to a question of Protestant and Catholic. And Minister of Agriculture Edwin Poots, who has spent some four decades embroiled in one controversy after another, is just that kind of man. His inflammatory intervention just days after a tightening of restrictions was announced by the Executive on which he sits was bad enough. Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Talkback hours before the new restrictions took effect, Mr Poots said he and his Executive colleagues had opposed many of the new rules but were outnumbered. The damage this will cause in terms of non-compliance – particularly among the unionist community Mr Poots was addressing – will be measured in coming weeks, and it will be measured in lives. As if that sectarian dumping of the concept of corporate responsiblity was not bad enough, Mr Poots poured aviation fuel on the blaze when he later told UTV that there’s a difference in terms of Covid between nationalist and unionist areas – and the difference is around six to one. In case that dog whistle wasn’t loud enough, Mr Poots went on to clarify that he was referring to Catholics when he attempted to play down the seriousness of his remarks by claiming senior Sinn Féin politicians don’t go to Mass. The gravity of what this extraordinary series of outbursts means in terms of how we cope with the Covid pandemic cannot be underestimated. Mr Poots was effectively telling the unionist community – at perhaps the most crucial time in the eight-month crisis – that they don’t face the same risks as nationalists. Mr Poots referenced the Bobby Storey funeral while trying to rationalise his bitter drivel, but there was no spike in the weeks following that funeral. Will he point the finger at himself in the event of a spike in two or three weeks time? Depressingly, Mr Poots’ intervention – rejected out of hand by Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride – would have been tainted in any case by his disastrous spell as Health Minister and by the fact the he is a Young Earther. To be clear, the man who has reduced the Covid pandemic to a question of what church you worship in believes that the planet is around 5,000 years old and that Moses parted the Red Sea. Meanwhile, First Minister Arlene Foster, who shot out of the traps to slap down Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín over Irish League football, has remained utterly silent over the shameful episode. Her now infamous ‘crocodiles’ outburst re the Irish language resonates to this day. Now a DUP dinosaur has handed her a chance to prove that she’s learned a lesson – and it’s crystal clear that she has not.
MIXED feelings among parents this week as schoolchildren returned to the classroom five months after schools closed in response to Covid-19.
NO one can deny the huge positive differences which the internet, broadband connectivity and social media have made to our lives.
A FINDING in the long-overdue Russia Report that the UK government “actively avoided” looking for evidence of Russian inferference in the 2016 EU referendum will come as no surprise to those of us who have been paying attention to the increasingly close and toxic relationship in recent years between senior Tories and obscenely wealthy, London-based oligarch friends of Vladimir Putin.
IT’S a matter of huge regret that the excellent job that the First and deputy First Minister were doing in battling the Covid pandemic has been hit by the current row over Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey.
IF the tragedy of Noah Donohoe held us breathless and sick with worry for the better part of a week, and if the final heartbreaking outcome left us reeling, we can hardly even begin to imagine what the teenager’s family have been through.
FEARS that even a considered easing of the lockdown would engender a dangerous sense of complacency were made real over the past seven days. The extent of the lockdown breaches has by no means been catastrophic, but it’s been enough to drive home the lesson that small moves can have big implications – particularly when people are as frustrated, confused and uncertain as they are now.
LAST week’s decision to reopen cemeteries was the right one, but – as with every other public space at present – activity will have to be closely monitored to ensure that safe practices are being observed. And though the cemetery move is to be cautiously welcomed, it is perhaps unfortunate that it came at a time when the first tentative conversations were beginning to open up about a potential lockdown exit.
IT seems likely that when the British government finally gets round to counting people who have died at home or in care homes from Covid-19, the United Kingdom will be the second-hardest-hit country on the planet.
REPORTS this week that Sinn Féin elected representatives have been informed that they may be targeted by the ‘New IRA’ with under-car bombs is another grim reminder of what ‘republican’ micro-groups have to offer. The news comes a week after MLAs Gerry Kelly and Michelle O’Neill were warned that their lives are in danger. That threat has now been widened out to include all Sinn Féin members. It’s being widely speculated that the threats were sparked by the attendance of senior party members at a PSNI recruiting event last week, but since Sinn Féin have been critically supportive of the PSNI for a dozen years it’s hard to see why a logical outworking of that support would cause dissidents so much angst. It’s much more likely that other factors are at play here. The first and most obvious is that the notable Sinn Féin advances in the recent election in the Republic represent the biggest success for republicanism since partition. The spectacle of Sinn Féin taking the largest share of the popular vote and tying with Fianna Fáil on the number of (elected) Dáil seats has sent the Dublin establishment into meltdown. Party President Mary Lou McDonald has been front and centre of the news agenda since February 8 and she has used that platform not only to push the social agenda that drove the Sinn Féin surge – a promise to take a radical approach to key issues including housing, health and pensions – but also to drive forward the party’s unity imperative. That has clearly discomfited the hurlers on the ditch of the dissident micro-groups, who wail impotently from the sidelines as island-wide changes arrive at dizzying speed. The republican dream of entering government in both post-partition jurisdictions at the same time has never been closer, and while one might suppose that a development like that would be seen as positive by republicans of every stripe, the truth is that such is the animus of many dissidents towards their former comrades that they would prefer unity not to happen if it came at the price of Sinn Féin being seen as the primary driver. The second benefit of the threats is that they serve to distract attention away from the total failure of what dissidents, with straight faces, refer to as their ‘military campaigns’. Much as the dissident threat is talked up in certain quarters by certain people with certain agendas, and despite the fact that it claims occasional and increasingly isolated ‘successes’, the facts don’t lie. The campaign is a sorry patchwork of bungled ‘operations’ and amateur-hour ventures. Hobbled by a paralysing lack of materiel and experienced members, the biggest threat they pose is to local communities and schools disrupted on a regular basis by the dumping of pipe bombs. Deeply infiltrated by British intelligence, the groups count among their members criminals who gravitate towards them in search of cover for their nefarious activities. And so we find them targeting not only the senior Sinn Féin members driving party policy, but rank and file members and reps going about their daily lives. If they follow through on their threat, they will find the job of targeting Sinn Féin members a lot less difficult than targeting armed police or soldiers, but they must know that any such action would be the straw that broke the camel’s back for a community from which they derive minuscule support.
THE stunning victory scored by Sinn Féin in the weekend election has sent a shockwave through the southern political establishment – so much so that a sense of disbelief has descended on the mainstream Dublin media and the former two big parties to the extent that little of any note has been said or done that might give us any real idea of where we’re headed in the next few weeks. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald has been making what looks like a fairly desultory attempt to forge a coalition of the left that would send her to Leinster House as Taoiseach. The mathematics make that prospect an unlikely one, but what might make it even more unlikely is the idea of the nightmare that would be the job of any Taoiseach attempting to lead a coalition comprised of so many parties connected by such a thin string. Their ideologies and priorities – while nominally on the left spectrum – are as diverse as those that separate Sinn Féin from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The growing consensus is that if Sinn Féin is finally to enter government in the Republic it will be as part of a three-way deal involving Fianna Fáil and a third party – possibly the Greens or the Social Democrats, the latter giving that coalition a majority of just one, the former a majority of seven. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s pre-election pledge not to go into government with Sinn Féin went out the window when the results of the RTE exit poll were announced on Saturday evening. If he doesn’t get the big job – and this is his last chance after nine years in charge of the party – he will become the only leader of Fianna Fáil never to have been Taoiseach, and he can hardly be blamed for not wanting that to be the first line in his future Wikipedia entry. But it won’t be Mr Martin’s eagerness to shake hands with President Michael D. Higgins that will determine the Fianna Fáil decision on whether or not to do business with Sinn Féin. The Fianna Fáil leader is damaged goods – as is his Fine Gael counterpart Leo Varadkar. It will be big name Fianna Fáil survivors from the disastrous election that will make the call when the parliamentary party sits down to decide what to do next. Meanwhile, anyone who thought Sinn Féin would downplay the national question after their big success in order not to spook the horses was badly mistaken. The issue of reunification was immediately put front and centre by Mrs McDonald, who in a series of interviews indicated that a border poll is a priority. She said that in the wake of Brexit a border poll is “an absolute priority” – and she is right. The lesson we have learned on this side of the Irish Sea from the Brexit debacle is that meaningful and substantial preparations are required ahead of such seismic constitutional change. The effect of this election on the physical make-up of the 33rd Dáil is yet to be seen, but in a way the psychological jolt that has been delivered north and south could be just as important. It will have sent an unmistakable message to those who continue to do a Three Wise Monkeys act in relation to the profound changes sweeping the island – and that message is that an opportunity to shape change is infinitely preferable to the danger of being shaped by it.
A 100km trek down Africa’s Zambezi River is set to be part of an epic fundraising initiative which staff from Start360 have signed up to. The Cathedral Quarter based charity provides services to young people and families requiring support, with staff working with clients aged eight to 80.