Covid-19 is a weapon of mass destruction that travels beyond borders. The fact that, North or South, we are all residents of an island now has a new relevance. Who knows where we will find ourselves when the clouds lift?
When Ireland's coronavirus nightmare ends, consider treating yourself to a visit to the last remaining shop on Sligo's O’Connell Street, where a family member continues to live over the premises.
The gentleman in question, John Mullaney, has few rivals in sales technique but the exchange of money for goods is a minor part of the experience. His impeccable manners are his outstanding quality.
He reaches the gold standard, every time, effortlessly. You leave his company refuelled.
Bad manners, in contrast, are such a destructive force. Usually the extreme actions of the perpetrator are unwarranted and the party on the receiving end, caught off guard, is left somewhere between confused and demoralised.
Insensitivity is a first cousin of bad manners.
On 13 January, there was a significant example of it at Stormont. Two days before, the North's five main political parties had agreed to end three years of political stalemate and they committed themselves to the restoration of power-sharing.
The dramatic shift would not have happened without the cajoling of Julian Smith, Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, and our own Tánaiste, Simon Coveney.
Monday 13 January was the start of a new week and a new era would have been the perfect time for Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar to arrive in Stormont together, with Julian Smith and Simon Coveney to give public expression to their joy in relation to their shared enterprise.
It would have been the perfect time for the British prime minister to acknowledge that the Taoiseach’s October trip to Liverpool had helped him achieve an accommodation with the EU over Brexit and how it, in turn, was a significant factor in Mr Johnson's Westminster election success.
But despite efforts from Dublin, the appropriate connections couldn’t be made with Downing Street. So on that Monday morning, the British prime minister breezed into the Stormont Estate, met the new administration, held a news conference in the Great Hall and almost gave a full public vote of confidence to his Secretary of State.
Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and their officials were left socially isolated elsewhere in Belfast. Eventually, like guests invited to the afters of a wedding, they were allowed into Stormont and had a brief encounter with Mr Johnson before he made a quick exit for the airport.
What thoughts were in the heads of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney as they travelled south that evening? Had they just received a harsh lesson on contrasting interpretations of political etiquette? Was it a portent they didn’t fully twig?
The following day, the Taoiseach confirmed a general election would take place.
Conor Murphy's challenge
Conor Murphy is the person charged with doing what no Sinn Féin politician, north or south has done in the party’s history. He is Northern Ireland’s Minister for Finance; as well as writing the cheques, he is expected to balance the books in a situation where the British government decides the level of funding at his disposal.
While Mártín Ó Muilleoir made a stab at doing it when he briefly had the role, Conor Murphy must face the responsibilities head on.
Within days of getting the job, he had a good sense of what it is like to inherit a poisoned chalice. The civil servants quickly produced the tell-tale spreadsheets. The ambitions of the multi-party power-sharing executive and the expectations of the electorate it serves don’t match the resources at Mr Murphy’s disposal.
Arranging a face to face meeting with the then British Chancellor, Sajid Javid, for what both sides knew would be 'can you please give us a dig out?’ session proved impossible.
The new Conservative party administration had more pressing priorities and Northern Ireland’s pleadings were well down the list. But Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, and possibly the well-connected secretary in Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance, Sue Gray, had a plan B.
A meeting was set up with a lesser figure in the Westminster machinery; a little-known minister who, fortunately, like Julian Smith, represents a Yorkshire constituency.
Conor Murphy travelled over to London and made his case. Julian Smith was a supportive presence for some of the discussions. But within weeks the Northern Ireland Secretary had been sacked by Boris Johnson.
In 11 Downing Street, the busy Chancellor who wasn't available to meet the Northern Ireland delegation was also on his way out the door. And the B lister, the little known Yorkshire MP who quietly listened to Conor Murphy’s pleadings, was on the rise. In fact, Rishi Sunak had been given the job of his boss, Sajid Javid, as Chancellor.
In 11 Downing Street, the busy Chancellor who wasn’t available to meet the Northern Ireland delegation was also on his way out the door. And the B lister, the little known Yorkshire MP who quietly listened to Conor Murphy’s pleadings, was on the rise.
In fact, the little known Rishi Sunak had been given the job of his boss, Sajid Javid, as Chancellor.
The British change of direction
The insensitivity towards the Irish visitors, kept waiting to be formally asked by Boris Johnson’s entourage onto the Stormont estate on Monday 13 January, could, at a stretch be put down as an unintended slight, a cock-up in logistics management.
But add in the removal of Julian Smith from his post and evidence of a trend grows.
The Boris Johnson I knew in the Brussels workplace over twenty years ago had a shy, awkward side. He was no fool. By playing a jester of sorts, he found a route to influence and popularity and that became his public persona. He was extremely competitive and ambitious but didn’t have a name for being bad-mannered.
The mandate he received as Prime Minister, and the circle he courted to help him achieve that victory, may have shifted Mr Johnson to a different space.
Weeks before the coronavirus challenge became a reality, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, was telling how the UK was never really comfortable around the Brussels dinner table and always had its coat on, anxious to leave.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster, who for a time practically had her own door key to 10 Downing Street, was feeling the cold east-west winds and London’s revised set of priorities.
In the way that Northern Ireland members of Sinn Féin disparagingly reference ‘the Dublin government', she talked of ‘the Westminster government’ in one of her recent speeches.
Rather than automatically cross-reference their policies and strategies with European or other international bodies, those close to Boris Johnson are inclined to ignore them.
In the early months of 2020, with its mandate intact and its rivals in disarray, team Boris was in buccaneering mode as it prepared to strike out, no ifs or buts, towards a post-Brexit brave new world with any questioning travellers swiftly jettisoned overboard.
In such an environment, the concept of ‘herd immunity’ seemed eminently sensible.
The limitations of his relationship with Boris Johnson were brought home to Leo Varadkar on that January Monday afternoon. Their careers travelled in opposite directions in the weeks that followed.
In the general election he called, the Fine Gael leader found that his party got little thanks for their achievements and were called out for their failings. It was a car crash that happened in slow motion and he was behind the wheel. After they hit the wall, the passengers and driver found themselves in a dazed condition when the most common reaction was ‘why us, we didn’t deserved this?’
Fortunately for them, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was like the penalty taker, facing an injured goalkeeper, who hammers the ball against the post. And if against even their own expectations, Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Féin were the success story of the election, the annoying truth for them is the set of keys they have received can’t open the doors to government buildings.
In the ‘after you......if you have all the answers, off you go and form a government’ vacuum that has followed, indecision is a dangerous consequence.
Was it wrong to let ski groups return to the island and head back to their homes? Should trends in northern Italy have been noted and stronger action taken about flights and visitors?
And yet a very definite truth is that the decision by Health Minister Simon Harris, and those who advised him, to call off the Ireland v Italy rugby match in Dublin, followed by the cancellation of the Saint Patrick’s Day parades, probably saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives.
Leo Varadkar made what must have been a difficult call to go to Washington for Saint Patrick’s Day. Mary Lou McDonald, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill changed their travel plans. The Taoiseach’s responsibilities, fronting relationships with the US president and his administration, are on a different scale. There may have been an element of ‘we are unlikely to be back here again in this guise’ among some of the travelling Irish party.
And yet a very definite truth is that the decision by Health Minister Simon Harris, and those who advised him, to call off the Ireland v Italy rugby match in Dublin, followed by the cancellation of the Saint Patrick's Day parades, probably saved hundreds, maybe thousands of lives.
The Taoiseach’s address outside Blair House in Washington had the sense of an alarm that had to be raised, even if the venue was far from ideal.
The person I observed, close up, in Armagh two days later when he brought senior members to meet their Northern Ireland counterparts, seemed to be processing something a lot deeper and more troubling than jet lag. That North-South meeting was on Saturday 14 March.
Three days later, Leo Varadkar made his Saint Patrick’s Day address to the nation and beyond. The plan to make it began to crystallise the day before. The first important draft was his own work. The likes of Martin Fraser, Sarah Meade, Brian Murphy and Nick Miller may have had some role in the tweaking,
If Leo the caretaker Taoiseach and Leo the wounded politician had influenced the decision to plough ahead with the US travel plans, in his Saint Patrick’s Day address different instincts took over.
The speaker may even have been discovering qualities within his own self for the first time. To have a prime minister from a small country on the edge of Europe voicing empathy with suffering communities in China, Italy and Spain went beyond pragmatism and statesmanship. That came the deep heart’s core, from a place that is more substantial than self.
The RTÉ executive in charge of that one camera, (plus one standby camera just in case) production at Government Buildings, watched live by almost 1.6 million on RTÉ television, possibly 200,000 more on Virgin Media and tens of thousands more on RTÉ's digital and social platforms, was John O’Regan, the creator of the Reeling In The Years series.
That 10 minute speech will have its place in the history of not just broadcasting, but the State itself.
Stormont's burden of responsibility
If the leader of the world’s most powerful country branded Covid-19 a 'Chinese virus' and classed the string of alarming reports 'fake news', what odds Northern Ireland’s new five party power-sharing administration hitting the perfect notes in the first phase of its existence?
Even before the virus emergency emerged, the Justice Minister, Naomi Long, was sidelined by a respiratory tract infection and had to miss giving her leader’s speech to the Annual Conference of the buoyant Alliance Party.
At the end of last year, Robin Swann resigned as Ulster Unionist party leader, having failed to halt its cycle of decline. He had concluded that his most significant political days were over and he reverted to being one of the 90 Assembly members.
But his replacement as party leader, Steve Agnew, did not take the one UUP ministerial seat in the power-sharing executive and the cup also passed the other UUP big-hitter, Doug Beattie.
So Robin Swann found his career resurrected. His new job - Minister for Health.
He is a man without guile. He took the health portfolio knowing none of the other parties wanted it. As the virus issue emerged, he quickly discovered how beyond the steep hill he must climb, there are now unknown quantities of dangerous, higher mountains. He doesn’t hide his worries or his determination to do his best. He has struck up a solid working relationship with Simon Harris.
The critical axis in Northern Ireland’s rookie power-sharing executive is between First Minister, Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill.
Having been chastised in the Renewable Heat Incentive public inquiry for her failure to read her brief, the chastened DUP leader is inclined to follow the advice of Northern Ireland and UK medical and scientific experts.
Michelle O’Neill recognises that ultimately Westminster will be paying (or not paying) the bills, depending on how Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration behaves. But as she has discovered a number of times in recent days, there are figures in her own Assembly party who look south rather than east. Like some senior Sinn Féin figures south of the border, they are not slow to let her know it.
And unlike the Adams/McGuinness era with its IRA history and shared Northern Ireland roots, Sinn Féin now has a president born and reared in Dublin with her political present and future embedded in Dáil Éireann.
Michelle O'Neill’s immediate future is much more challenging than that of her predecessor, Martin McGuinness. Her success in the short and medium term will depend on her ability to find common cause with Arlene Foster and all their colleagues in the power-sharing executive.
So far there has been a collegiality among the Executive ministers, with the SDLP’s sole representative, Infrastructure Minister, Nicola Mallon, an important part of that dynamic.
The best thing the Foster/O’Neill partnership have going for them at the moment is the cohesiveness between their special advisors, Stephen McGlade and Philip Weir.
They avoid the limelight and have been around long enough to know the patterns and the consequences of failed political relationships. One influential veteran was struck by Stephen McGlade’s capacity to say thanks. Philip Weir is a qualified GP.
The late writer, Dermot Healy, used the title, 'Sudden Times', for one of his fine books. He once told me he heard the phrase from a neighbour when they attended the funeral of a local man in Maugherow.
As we sit in our cocoons, deliberately keeping our distance, our ability to influence the lives and deaths of others is being defined in a new, unexpected and sometimes frightening way.
Who knows where we will find ourselves when the clouds lift? This time a weapon of mass destruction really does exist. It is silent and hidden. It travels beyond borders. It doesn’t distinguish between private and public patients.
Such is the level of response it requires it has managed to eliminate some of obstacles the great Noel Browne couldn’t overcome in the era when he led the fight against TB. For the first time in the history of the state, necessity has created the possibility of a health service, staffed and led in a way, consistent with the concept of an Irish version of Bevan’s NHS.
The reality that, north and south, we are all residents of an island now has a new relevance.
The Orange Order was one of the first organisations to cancel all meetings and planned marches, on both sides of the border, while the British government was grappling with such issues.
Dublin’s schools closure policy became a demand by many in Northern Ireland before Boris Johnson’s administration adopted the measure.
Unemployment benefit in the Republic is higher than what’s available in Northern Ireland. Dublin was quicker off the mark with its special payments for workers but the money on offer south of the border is less than some of the supports subsequently introduced by the UK’s new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the B lister who is threatening to overshadow his prime minister.
But those fixated with the constitutional question would be wise to respect the value of silence as we concentrate on the priority of minding ourselves as we mind each other.
Restored by the village
The late Ian Paisley didn’t get much time on centre stage after he led his party into power-sharing with the DUP’s traditional enemies, Sinn Féin in May 2007. He lasted 13 months in the First Minister role. He was 82 when his party called time.
He was still bruised a year later when he got an expected invitation to open a peace park in rural south Sligo, where the SDLP leader, John Hume had visited twenty two years before.
It wasn’t just Dr Paisley who was asked to come south - his wife, Eileen, their children and grandchildren were also invited. It turned out to be an important journey for one of the most significant figures in the recent history of our island.
He found the values in the west of Ireland were similar to those he knew and cherished in North Antrim. He also found gratitude and respect for the road he had taken in the final stages of his political life. He was literally restored by a village.
During those days when they were the recipients of good manners from what once seemed an alien place, the Paisley clan members were put up in the Yeats Country Hotel Inn in Curry.
The village sits between Tubbercurry and Charlestown on the main Sligo to Galway road.
Even when observing the speed limit, you pass Curry in a flash.
And yet it helped to bring dignity and affirmation to a major figure like Dr Paisley in the winter of his life.
Curry is also the native place of Dr Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Heath Organization’s Emergency Programme.
Sudden Times in the Global Village.