14 April 2020

Sinn Fein is ruthlessly exploiting the coronavirus crisis

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The maxim that one should “never let a good crisis go to waste” is being tested to destruction in Northern Ireland by Sinn Fein. The republican party is an integral part of the power-sharing executive at Stormont, but rather than accept shared responsibility for the province’s response to coronavirus, it has sniped bitterly from the sidelines and exploited the disease to advance an all-Ireland agenda.

For one brief afternoon, though, it looked like the Shinners might adopt a more responsible approach.

After the Republic of Ireland decided to shut its schools in the face of overwhelming public pressure back in mid-March, Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, told journalists at a joint executive press conference that “we (in Northern Ireland) have not reached that stage yet. We are guided by the science and the medical advice that suggests this is not the right decision at this time”.

The very next day, science and medical advice provided by, among others, the chief medical officer, was jettisoned, as O’Neill announced that “on the back of the angst that there is among the general public, now is the time to take action”. This almost instant U-turn was put into context by her demand that the executive accept a ‘joined-up approach across the island” rather than taking guidance from Westminster.

The party’s representatives followed up this volte-face by directing a deluge of bad-tempered abuse at the UK government. John O’Dowd, formerly education minister in Northern Ireland, tweeted that the “shire of bastards” in London was conducting a “twisted medical experiment” on “everyone of us” (sic). The former MEP and convicted bomber, Martina Anderson, appealed for “fortress Ireland” to withstand the wave of disease coming from Great Britain and praised schools that closed in defiance of official advice.

Sinn Fein has maintained this oppositional stance ever since, even as its ministers take part in joint press conferences and make official announcements on behalf of the executive.

Rather than contribute to the province’s coronavirus strategy, its representatives have viciously attacked their colleagues in devolved government. In an interview on the BBC’s The View programme, O’Neill accused the Ulster Unionist health minister, Robin Swann, of “slavishly following the Boris Johnson model”, implying that his refusal to copy the Republic of Ireland was responsible for an inadequate supply of personal protection equipment (PPE) and insufficient testing for the virus.

Last week, Martina Anderson went further on the Nolan radio programme, claiming that there is no testing programme at all in Northern Ireland. Her remarks came twenty-four hours after O’Neill, acting in her role as deputy first minister, assured the Assembly that testing for Covid-19 was well underway.

In fact, with the Republic of Ireland confirming that it will prioritise testing for hospital patients and healthcare workers, its strategy is in line with the situation in Northern Ireland. And, comparatively, the NHS in Ulster has tested a greater proportion of its population than equivalents in the rest of the United Kingdom.

As for PPE, O’Neill launched her attack on Swann just hours before it was revealed that her party’s finance minister, Conor Murphy, had failed to lodge a significant ‘joint order’ with the Dublin government to bring equipment from China. Murphy previously claimed that this consignment would “satisfy our supply needs”, while O’Neill assured the Assembly that a contract had been signed to guarantee the deal.

Last week, authorities in the Irish Republic confirmed that “it had not proved possible to place a joint order” for the equipment. Meanwhile, the health minister took delivery of over five million pieces of PPE provided by the government in London. Rather than show contrition for making unfounded promises, Murphy blustered that “someone from inside government” had briefed the media that the order had fallen through.

In addition, while Sinn Fein demands that everyone else must take more stringent measures ever more quickly against Covid-19, it is more forgiving when it comes to its activists and supporters. The party’s representatives in Belfast have engaged in an appallingly crass campaign, erecting branded banners on railings at public parks, to provide ‘information’ to the general public. For the Shinners, it seems political self-promotion constitutes an ‘essential’ reason to leave the house.

Then, last week, former Sinn Fein councillor Francis McNally was buried amidst crowds of mourners, a colour party and a republican procession. This blatant disregard for social-distancing, and the party’s failure to condemn it, prompted the Belfast News Letter to note that, “many people across Northern Ireland have the sense that there is one rule for republicans and another for the rest of us”.

Sinn Fein’s cynicism and hypocrisy won’t come as a surprise to anybody who observes Ulster politics closely. The party will do anything to undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and, such is its fanaticism, an unprecedented public health emergency is viewed as another opportunity to attack the Union.

The flimsy pretence that it might still be acting in good faith was destroyed beyond repair at the weekend, as Sinn Fein tried to block the health minister’s request for the army to help construct a field hospital at the old Maze prison site, outside Lisburn. For republicans, their hatred of Britain and its troops trumps the opportunity to save lives.

In a particularly dismal example of this mindset, the Irish Times reported that Michelle O’Neill objected to an early Covid-19 patient being air-lifted to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for specialist treatment. The paper says that Sinn Fein’s northern leader, “complained he should have gone to Dublin”, but Arlene Foster, “politely but emphatically told her the location of the hospital did not matter but rather the level of care”.

It’s been obvious for some time that republicans intended to blame coronavirus deaths in Northern Ireland on the ‘partition’ of the island and the involvement in its affairs of the British government. The fact that, as a proportion of confirmed cases, the death rate here is lower than both the Republic and the rest of the UK, won’t affect this strategy one iota.

Currently, Northern Ireland’s system of devolved government requires Sinn Fein to be included in a ‘mandatory coalition’ at Stormont. The Covid-19 crisis confirms that, no matter how serious the circumstances, the party can never be trusted to work constructively with its partners in the Executive.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author ‘An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit‘.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.