The arrival of Covid-19 could hardly have come at a worse time for the newly-re-established Northern Ireland Assembly. Ministers from the four parties making up the Stormont Executive had barely got their feet under their desks when the crisis hit.
As it happened, the key health portfolio – regarded at the time as a poisoned chalice – was secured by Robin Swann of the minority Ulster Unionist Party. Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein was ready to risk it because, after three years in which the suspension of devolution had left healthcare stuck in aspic, the NHS in the province was in even worse shape than its counterparts elsewhere in the UK.
Swann immediately promised a review of the entire sector coupled with a significant increase in funding. But no sooner had he published the outline of his plan for an across-the-board revival than the coronavirus arrived in Europe, first in Italy, then in the UK.
At this point, the joint leaders of the Executive, DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Fein, decided that with the virus moving to centre-stage, it was up to them to be seen as the key drivers of policy.
Predictably, Foster looked to Downing Street and Whitehall, demanding, as ever, that central government make up any financial shortfall that Stormont might experience during the outbreak and its legacy. The British people, she said, were as one in the fight, led by a prime minister who had – albeit against the wishes of 60 per cent of the NI electorate – delivered Brexit and enjoyed an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons. Whatever England did, Ulster would follow. It was as simple as that.
Meanwhile, O’Neill turned to Dublin and Brussels. Ireland was a single geographical entity, she said, and efforts to defeat the Covid-19 threat could only succeed on an all-island basis, bolstered by the EU, of which the Republic, of course, remains an active member. O’Neill was not against taking money from the British Government, but looked for leadership to the Republic, in which, following elections in February, it had just become the largest single party.
The feud in the North was just about held in check. The DUP refused at first to follow the example of the Dublin government by closing all schools. Against O’Neill’s expressed wish, it preferred to wait for a signal from London. Unsurprisingly, the party founded by the Rev Ian Paisley was keen to accept help from the British Army in setting up an emergency hospital. Sinn Fein was not – though it later relented.
When tempers flared, it was more often on the Republican side of the divide. John O’Dowd, who held office in the previous Executive, did not hold back when it came to the utility of the British link. “Let’s be clear,” he tweeted, “this shire of bastards are using everyone of us in some form of twisted medical experiment. Do you honestly believe the rest of Europe is wrong & this balloon (Boris Johnson] and his ilk are right. If you are not angry it’s time to get angry, we are on the brink of disaster!”
Martina Anderson, a convicted IRA terrorist who until January was a Sinn Fein member of the European Parliament, could barely contain her outrage. In a tweet that would have horrified her English teacher at Saint Cecilia’s College in Derry, she screamed: “‘Herd Immunity’ whoever made this up needs sacked! This is the “scientific” advise that the British is following & ‘spreading’ to the north This is madness Fortress Ireland approach needed NOW”.
And yet, against the odds, Northern Ireland looks to be emerging from the current wave of the coronavirus with fewer deaths per head of population than England. The fact is that Belfast and Dublin have acted more or less in concert. Foster and the acting Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, met last month in Armagh to discuss tactics and appeared to get on swimmingly. The First Minister, British to her fingertips, is not so anti-Irish as to be blind to her neighbours in a time of shared crisis.
Away from Covid-19, it is a different story. The lockdown has given politicians and pundits time removed from the usual distractions of a divided society in which to reflect on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Though the daily cut and thrust has been paused, there has been a compensatory flowering of introspection.
Sinn Fein’s official commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising was this year held online – though there were a couple of aberrant “live” marches in outlying areas of the North and several Republican funerals complete with honour guard and pipers.
On the loyalist side, there will be no Twelfth of July celebrations and no procession by the Apprentice Boys in August to mark the 331st anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Derry. Last week, photographs appeared online of bonfire preparations intended for the “Eleventh Night” that instead of effigies of the Pope and Gerry Adams will, bizarrely, feature “heroes” of the NHS.
But it is numbers that continue to dominate discussion. The sectarian headcount doesn’t change that much year on year, but with each decade that passes the day draws closer when Catholics will be in a majority across the province. The British v. Irish quarrel, in remission at the moment, will surely metastasise throughout the body politic as soon as normality is restored, six months or a year from now.
Unionists of all shades are deeply worried that the cards are stacked against them and that, barring a miracle, a United Ireland is all-but inevitable. Not only is the number of Catholic voters going up by several thousand each year, but Britain is seen as moving into a new, England First phase in which Ulster’s 900,000 or so Protestants are of no more than peripheral concern. At the same time, the Republic is increasingly viewed as stable, prosperous liberal and European – qualities that appeal not only to Catholics and nationalists, but to a growing number of younger, better educated Protestants.
Foster has famously said that in the event of Irish unity, she will leave the country, settling, one imagines, in a bothy in one of the more Unionist corners of Scotland, though just possibly in Canada or New Zealand. Other diehards are of similar mind, arguing that, whatever Sinn Fein might say in public, there can be no place for Unionists in a country in which, by definition, the Union no longer exists.
A border poll, held in, say, 2025 would be close, but could well result in a majority for reunification. Were a couple of hundred-thousand Protestants to leave in consequence – accelerating a trend that has been apparent for the last 20 years – the transfer of sovereignty would be eased both financially and politically. But there remains much to play for. Nothing is settled, and with the coronavirus casting a long shadow across the landscape, few just now seem ready to roll the dice.