THEY say the future belongs to those who can imagine it. If that’s the case, then the diverse future being imagined right here, right now, has the potential to be very bright for Belfast. That’s because across progessive Belfast neighbourhoods, diversity is being championed and the ‘New Irish’ welcomed.Nowhere is that truer than in the west of the city. Indeed, it’s no accident that so many Syrian refugees have made their home in West Belfast for they know that there their suffering is understood, their faith respected and their heritage held in high regard.
THE ruling by the Public Prosecution Service that no charges are to brought against any of the senior Sinn Féin members who attended the funeral of Bobby Storey last June has prompted an entirely predictable wave of fury and indignation from the party’s political opponents.
THE depressing sight of a Michael Stone flag outside Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School is a grim reminder of the landmark blockade of 20 years ago, which we hoped represented a low water mark for base sectarianism in the North. But the decision by Ardoyne loyalists to put up a picture of a serial killer of Catholics outside a Catholic school – later put right by wiser local heads – is the latest reminder of the turmoil that unionism finds itself in at present. And it is absolutely no coincidence that this shocking hate crime took place after a period in which the main unionist parties have been ramping up confusion and tension in their shambolic campaign to have the Irish Sea border removed. The decision of the DUP to meet the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), which includes the UDA and the UVF, both of whom are up to their necks in drug-dealing and violent crime, significantly raised the political temperature and it sent out a message to the unionist community; and that message – coming so soon after the LCC stated that physical violence to remove the Protocol was being considered – was that things have progressed beyond the political. It’s a horribly regressive and ultimately self-defeating strategy and another perfect example of unionism’s utter failure to connect, to learn, to listen, to consider. The gathering pace of the debate on a united Ireland can only be further hastened when it’s clear from incidents like this that the sectarian hatred and violence which marked the early years of partition have never gone away.
POLICING the pandemic is a thankless task. If the PSNI opt for a light-touch approach to breaches of regulations they’re accused of two-tier or political policing; if they adopt a robust strategy to public breaches, they’re accused of being heavy-handed.
THERE’S cause for guarded optimism as Covid infection rates continue on a downward trend. But there’s also cause for optimism in how the Executive is taking necessarily cautious steps forward in response to the changing environment. Unanimity on the decision to allow pupils in years P4 to P7 to return to class next Monday will be welcomed by a public exhausted not just by the pandemic and the lockdown, but by the frequent failures of the Stormont institutions to display the unity of purpose that these extraordinary times demand. It has also been agreed to allow all other schools to reopen a week after Easter in a move that will, of course, be continent on ongoing reviews of the pandemic status.We can only hope that this outbreak of common sense will be the norm from here on on and that those who last month were loudly demanding an immediate return to school will have learned that just because London decides something is a good idea does not mean that Belfast needs to follow.
THE MOMENTUM towards a border poll has in the past fortnight been building at a dizzying pace that must have surprised even the most optimistic united Irelanders and dismayed even the most pessimistic defenders of the union.
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.