Coming hot on the deals of the release of the RHI Report, if ever affirmation were needed of the sickly nature of our politics in Northern Ireland it was its reaction to the global virus pandemic, engulfing every aspect of living across the world. How quickly local political responses to the pandemic became an orange and green issue is the greatest indication of how deeply unwell our politics has become.
As businesses wrestle with when and how to let staff go, to abate its entire ship from sinking, and those within the vulnerable brackets for the virus frett whether or not they will be driven into the pit of ever-growing statistics before the summer is out, and loved ones are consumed with concern about how best to protect them, politicians and political commentators responded by slopping their orange or green paint across the issue.
The fact that when confronted with this level of gravity that is some people’s first response is beyond bewildering and utterly and abjectly depressing. But the sheer raw childishness of it is awe-inspiring.
The problem with voting in hecklers to take the stage is we then need to listen to them for the whole set; the problem with handing your car keys to a child is the whiplash that comes after the inevitable crash. The problem of consistently giving the levers of power for our entire country – the NHS, taxation, the economy, and schools – to some who only entered politics on a green and orange basis is they have nothing to contribute beyond that. They have neither the wavelength nor the capacity.
I have confidence in individuals like Robin Swann and Conor Murphy to act like adults and advocates for their areas and listen constantly to experts. However, the wider political apparatus and other departments in Northern Ireland are heaving under the weight of the deadwood, who are only motivated by the muck of tribalism.
The casualties that we face in Northern Ireland will be significant and made all the more significant due to what our politics has done for the last 4 years. This – DUP and Sinn Fein – is why you do not refuse to create a government for three years. The wreckage that it inherently wreaks on the State means if a crisis like this occurs, you are far less capable of absorbing it. Northern Ireland was already on the verge of a recession, if not already beginning to become submerged in one; we already had the worst waiting lists in the UK; we already had the highest portion of people with less than £100 of savings out of any region in the UK (over 56.8% of all adults).
We already had an unreformed justice, health, and education system, which was slow and inefficient. We already had a political institution that was incapable of providing rigorous debate, analysis, and accountability or passing any reform.
When we emerge from this pandemic, in many ways, each of us needs to take a stock check on our lives – we need to re-embrace things and pleasures we’d previously took for granted before the iron curtain covered us whole for several months. But we also need to re-evaluate the political ineptitude we have abided by and accepted for so long.
We need adults at the helm for moments like this; not a First Minister who has the attention span to not even read legislation she introduces to the Assembly, or a Deputy First Minister who does not reach for any policy reform beyond ‘border poll’. Their ineptitude will exasperate the pain Northern Ireland will suffered from this crisis; I am trying to assure myself that at least in our post-virus future, we’ll finally shepherd in the change we’ve deserve for so long.
Finally, some words from John Hewitt, as we face what we face together:
I thought when the grave was sodded
And the carriage came back to the door
And the sick man’s bed was empty,
I could endure no more.
But the heart is a tougher metal.
It can carry beyond belief
A proud and ancient escutcheon
Etched by the acid of grief.
And lastly, I just want to say, as scary as all this is, we are an exceptional place and people – we will overcome this, and the light that was lightly dimmed by the darkness that ambushes it now will shine all the brighter once we’ve carried ourselves through.
Michael is from Kells, Ballymena, and began writing comment pieces alongside his job following graduating in law from Cambridge. In particular, he has written for the Independent (UK); one of these featured on the The Times Red Box and several of which were republished by the Belfast Telegraph. He has also written for Legal Cheek. He is a commercial litigator at a London city law firm.