THE five-point plan signposting the way out of the lockdown outlined by the Stormont Executive on Tuesday is a thoughtful and considered response at a critical time in the Covid crisis. The work done on it is also an encouraging sign that the seriousness of the pandemic has finally hit home and that local geopolitical realities have finally trumped kneejerk allegiances to London or Dublin.
And heaven knows none of us, from whatever side of the political divide we hail, will be hard-pushed to find good reasons for us to plough our own furrow, given the appalling failures and bad faith displayed by both the UK and Irish government in the past few days. From Boris Johnson’s frankly embarrassing lockdown exit strategy, revealed to a hushed and then nonplussed populace on on Sunday evening, to Leo Varadkar’s cynical failure to apprise the Executive of his exit strategy (to say nothing of his appallingly insensitive use of language about a Fine Gael ‘overseas office’ in Belfast, for which he was forced to apologise), the two governments have illustrated in spades that they are incapable of devising a template which we should even crib from, much less mimic.
Of course it is right that Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill should be aware of what London and Dublin are doing when formulating our response to this unprecedented emergency – given the economic and geographical imperatives they can hardly do other. But there seems to be a developing appreciation that the unique position of the north of Ireland – part of an island yet linked to the United Kingdom – can only be really appreciated by politicans whose desks are at a remove from London and Dublin. What folly it would be to look to either government for a lead – governments whose leaders have little knowledge of the facts on the ground in these six counties and who care even less.
The main problem with the new Executive strategy is the total absence of a timeframe. Nobody for a second expected that a hard and fast set of dates would be set for the five phases of the strategy when no-one can be certain how the Covid picture is going to look in 24 hours, never mind in a week. But at the very least we were entitled to expect some sort of indicative timeframe that would give families, businesses, schools and so on at least a hint of what their next move should be.
But the most important thing is that a firm stay-at-home message remains in place, just as it does in Scotland and Wales. Welcome as that message is, it is abundantly clear that, far from being a comprehensive disincentive, it is serving as a finger in the dyke. The evidence is there for the eyes to see in the amount of traffic on the roads and in the amount of people resuming their daily business. That, of course, is organically economic. In the more affluent parts of the city it would be a struggle to find any signs of an easing of the lockdown as the professional classes continue to work from home. Working class people are returning to work in greater numbers every day, despite the Executive message, largely because the English media, widely consumed here, has a strong lockdown exit narrative. In other words, the cynical and deliberately confused London plan is trumping the Belfast one. Stormont needs to address that reality.
Our front picture shows walkers social distancing at the Waterworks, North Belfast.