Darkness at the edge of freedom

THE Coronavirus lockdown is now two months old. We are accustomed to a ‘new normal’ and dream of the lives we took for granted. There has been some progress. The Irish government published a detailed plan for restarting the republic’s economy with target dates when citizens can begin to move around again and trading can restart. The Northern Ireland Executive published a similar plan, with no dates, though regulations began to relax on May 18. The UK government’s plan, which applies only to England, was condemned for lacking clarity. It’s ‘stay alert’ slogan was swiftly rejected by the administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The people of these islands will move out of lockdown at different times, at different speeds and with different advice.

It really is a case of – fingers crossed and let’s hope for the best.

The most positive scenario is that Covid-19 will die out naturally, or humanity will develop a high degree of immunity, and we can all resume much of the ‘old normal’ by the end of summer, perhaps even enjoy overseas travel again by 2021. The worst is that the virus is here to stay and periodic flare-ups will be managed using a test, trace and isolate regime. The possibility of new lockdowns will stay with us, more will die and health systems will remain under stress. The places most at risk are big cities where millions live, work and play cheek-by-jowl. The vast majority of deaths in Ireland occurred in Dublin, Belfast and Cork and in the care sector among the vulnerable.

As fatality and infection figures fall the debate has turned to the economic and social cost of this natural disaster. I see evidence of global recession from my window every morning. Cargo vessels lie empty and anchored in Belfast Lough and luxury pleasure craft sit idle in Bangor marina. The financial cost of this tragedy is huge. It will be carried disproportionately by the young. Many have found their education interrupted or have lost their jobs. Their income will be taxed far into the future to pay for billions in borrowing by their governments. The traditional escape valve for the Irish, emigration to the United States and Australia, is closed. The predicted downturn is worse than the recession of 2008 and could yet be worse than the global collapse of the 1930s which followed the Wall Street Crash. Whether it is V-shaped, or at the start of a faltering recovery, remains to be seen.

The social cost too has been high, though it is more difficult to measure. Relationships have been put under tremendous stress and this resulted in a spike in domestic abuse statistics. The police in Northern Ireland now respond to around 50 violent incidents in the home every day. It will undoubtedly lead to the breakdown of more families and a rise in the number of those with mental health problems caused by grief, isolation, separation and poverty. This is particularly worrying for Northern Ireland which already has a mental health crisis, a legacy of the Troubles, and little in the way of infrastructure to help those who need it. For many there is darkness at the edge of freedom.

For the politicians who must deal with this catastrophe the impact has been a mixed one. The conservative Fine Gael administration in the republic has received praise for its approach, though it lost a general election in February to its traditional rival Fianna Fail and the radical socialists of Sinn Fein. It now seems likely the next administration will be a coalition of the two so-called ‘civil war parties’ for the first time in the history of the state, though it will have to be propped up by the Green Party.

In Northern Ireland the five-party Executive, led by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, finally got its act together and presented a rare show of unity. Public confidence in the power-sharing regime and cross-border relations seem to have improved. Julian Smith, the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State who persuaded nationalists and unionists to get back to the table in February after three years of deadlock, called for Assembly elections to be pushed back until 2023 to give the largest parties a chance to consolidate cooperation. This angered the smaller parties which have been gaining ground on the back of public frustration with the hardliners.

Sadly, Ireland’s next crisis is waiting in the wings and will put them all to the test again. Brexit is looming and threatens to inflict another round of damage upon European relations, the economies and societies of Britain and Ireland. Unionists in Northern Ireland have accepted that a so-called ‘border in the Irish Sea’ is now an inevitable consequence of backing the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union but will fight over the detail. If the British government and the European Commission cannot make progress this month the window of opportunity to extend trade talks will close. The UK will then leave one of the world’s largest markets at the end of this year without a deal and face punishing export tariffs and regulation. It has already published its response which includes imposing tariffs and regulation upon Irish goods.

The western world needs honest leadership and trade cooperation to speed recovery from the Coronavirus. However Johnson deludes the masses in Britain with hollow optimism about a future outside the EU and makes up pandemic policy as he goes along. Trump deludes the masses in the US with a bogus promise to bring back jobs from Europe and China and blames everybody but himself for a disaster that has left the US on its knees. Frankly, I wouldn’t buy a used car from either of them. I am reminded of the words of Mary ‘Mother’ Jones. The American trade unionist was born in Cork and was a founder of the International Workers of the World in 1905. “It is time to pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

© Maurice Neill 2020