This pandemic has been a right rollercoaster for the NI Executive. No doubt, it’s not been an easy ride for any government or legislature across the world to face such a novel and unprecedented foe. But here in NI, the folks on the hill have of course to add to this test the burden of consociational governance between two diametrically opposed ideologues. Surely, if the omnipresence of the constitutional question was to be overcome, a right old pandemic would do the trick? Well in what seems a lifetime ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed not, it appeared for a while as though the Executive would play ball, political football that is, with the incoming virus.
But then, as the severity dawned and words such as “lockdown” began to enter our daily vocabulary, something very strange happened. The Executive harmonised. Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster would grace our screens regularly, delivering clear, coherent and broadly unified messages. It was in every sense of the word, and given the extreme political turbulence which has rocked these parties for the past decade, bizarre. Even when the Unionist overlords across the water in the Conservative party began to water down public health messaging in England from the rather self-explanatory ‘Stay at Home’ to the rather enigmatic ‘Stay Alert’, the DUP didn’t follow suit, purporting that NI would have a “nuanced” approach to Covid thus, diverging from the Union and instead opting, sensibly, to distance itself from the lunacy of No.10. While this lull in party politics and the removal of the usual over-politicised Us versus Them’uns was bizarre for this Executive, it was welcome. Oh so welcome. It provided clarity in times that desperately called for it, and more importantly, it provided confidence in the public health message which was resultantly broadly adhered to.
Then it slowly and painfully went to shit. Mary Lou and Michelle attended a funeral, Sammy forgot his mask on the tube, Poots said the coronavirus kept its toaster in the cupboard and stayed on one side of the peace wall and so on and so on, you can google the rest, it all stems from some bald geeky guy testing his eyesight across the water though. So things returned to normal. There were to be no chuckle-sisters, no enduring friendship that resulted from navigating precarious political waters together. Instead, it was toe to toe once again. Halftime oranges were eaten, the political football resumed.
My timeline is a bit shady there in regards to how the Executive’s harmony fell apart. But generally speaking, as lockdown lifted and there became more room for political debate once again, that debate was commandeered rather frustratingly along party lines. And last Thursday night, this political shitshow was put on display, bearing for all to see, this calamitous Executive. It wasn’t even the difference of position that was frustrating, the DUP’s insistence on restricting-lifting measures contrasting Sinn Fein’s all-island “until the South say so” approach. What was frustrating, was the last-second eleventh hour, “ohhhh we’ll keep it a surprise” tell-no one decision making. Sam McBride, a Journalist, revealed that he, a Journalist, received a question from a member of the Executive asking if he, a Journalist, knew when or if the Executive were meeting later that day! A Journalist?! The obsolesce baulks at the irrelevance of an Executive that cannot arrange itself but through third party journalists. It wasn’t as if this was a sprung-upon emergency crisis scenario either, god forbid the NI exec has to ever cope with one of them, they had weeks to discuss and monitor the situation and decide the best route forward. It wasn’t like this expiration of restrictions came out of bloody nowhere, those clowns literally decided on that date weeks earlier!
The secrecy which shrouds the decision making of the DUP and SF is frustrating, but it is also hugely damaging. Leaving local businesses, employers and sole-traders who, it goes without saying, have had a horrendous year so far, in the metaphorical lurch. All for what? So that the parties can play a bit later in Stormont castle, and emerge the victors when they appear at the eleventh hour with a solution for a situation that they cocked-up in the first place.
But here’s the knife to twist in the wound of the business community. One week on from that Executive debacle and that teetering of uncertainty, the DUP have gracefully snapped on the handbrake and spun on their heels. Where the DUP this time last week, pushed for no extension beyond the 27th, and characteristically of its Paisleyite foundations, shouted Never, Never, Never, to further hospitality restrictions. The Health Minister, Robin Swann, has this evening just announced all-party agreement for a two-week period of “tougher” restrictions starting as of… the 27th.
So it begs the question, other than damaging the credibility of the Executive by bringing into the public crosshairs the farcical inertia cross-party governance can cause, what on earth was last week all about? The Executive seemed so divided, yet this week so united? How can so much have changed in a week? Wasn’t the health minister suggestive of such a trend necessitating this action, if so, why on earth were the DUP so vocal in their opposition, yet less than a week later so confident in their acquiescence? Ultimately, it appears to be a necessary step and thus welcome step, as Robin Swann has indicated, it is a decision guided by the advice of the medical and scientific community of Northern Ireland, which is the justification supporting the DUP’s newfound stance, which is apparently, completely dislocated from the events of last week. There is a silver-lining to this however, while the actions last week were infuriating and damaging to the business community and confidence in the Executive, this represents a glimmer of Executive harmony that shone through the darkest hours of the pandemic’s lockdown. And at least in that harmony, local businesses are provided with clear direction. As for the two weeks following the 27th everyone now knows where they stand. The proof in the pudding however, lies in the 11th of December, the deadline for expiry of these new restrictions. We shall see if we get a repeat of last-week and the last-ditch eleventh hour catastrophe from the Executive once again. I certainly hope not, but I won’t be holding my breath.