29 January 2021 No Comments by The Northern Standard


Having waged an arduous campaign to resist the doomsday scenario of the UK Government’s Brexit escapade and avoid the creation of a hard Border on the island, the people of our circulation area and those of frontier counties on either side of the divide will, we imagine, have monitored the trend of some of the debate around the Government’s extension of Covid-19 Level 5 restrictions this week with various levels of incredulity. Calls for a “zero-Covid” strategy that would have as one of its impacts the temporary sealing of the road links between the Republic and the North have been made by a number of Opposition politicians and have commanded a level of support in some advocacy and lobbying quarters.

With the worst of Brexit averted but the logistic and other complications of its outworking manifesting as an ongoing challenge to trade and commercial interaction generally, some seem insistent that some form of “Covexit” offers a panacea to the ills of the pandemic. The calls have been rightly resisted by the Government, with both Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar forthright in their stance against sealing off Border roads. Their comments have been echoed yesterday by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, although the Minister did not entirely close off the approach if future circumstances recommended it.

The motivation for the proposal seems to be derived in large measure from the successful approach adopted by New Zealand at the outset of the pandemic. New Zealand closed its borders to all but returning citizens, has yet to reopen them and is in no hurry to do so now that its first case of community transmission in more than two months has emerged. The Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has yet to approve a vaccine for rollout although indications are that this step is imminent.

New Zealand has been rightly praised for the alacrity and rigour of its approach, which was replicated to lesser but still notable effect by neighbouring Australia and Pacific Island nations. But it is simpleminded in the extreme to suggest that the New Zealand model could suddenly be transplanted to this island, at this stage of the Covid-19 battle, with seamless and similar effect. It is a model that simply wouldn’t fit. If we entered into such a vacuum-sealed lockdown, when, as the Tánaiste rightly asked this week, would we be able to come out of it if the virus was still a factor somewhere in the world?

It is understandable that people in this country should crave some fast-tracking approach that would bring the coronavirus nightmare to a speedier end. People from our own Border precincts would merit particular tolerance for holding this view given the extent of the spread of the virus in Northern Ireland, and the fact that the “epicentre” of Covid-19 there was this week identified as the nearby Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon local government region by a leading health official.

The high instance of cases in Co Monaghan, although now abating somewhat, has had people uneasy about the flow of vehicular and human traffic from across the Border for some time. Yet we are confident that the majority of Monaghan people would look upon any move to seal off the transport arteries that connect the island’s jurisdictions as a step too far. Like the spectre of the no-deal Brexit, it smacks of a doomsday scenario, one that should only be contemplated when all alternative solutions have been exhausted and catastrophe is staring us in the face.

And while things are unsettling and serious at the current time, we have certainly not reached that stage yet. We have surely not maximised the potential for coordination and co-operation between the health authorities north and south, or obtained the maximum level of political co-operation with Stormont and Westminster to deal with maximum efficiency with this implacable common foe. While the measures being implemented on both parts of the island in pursuit of the shared goal of bringing down case numbers are perhaps now at their most closely aligned following the Government’s decisions of Tuesday, a lot more can still to be done to show and reassure the public that these approaches are being followed in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement in the sense that at their core is mutual respect among the populations resident in the North and the Republic for the health and wellbeing of each other.

And catastrophe is not imminent, if we hold our nerve and continue to cleave to the advice reinforced to us on Tuesday to refrain from unnecessary journeys, remain at home and continue to practice the recommended hygiene and virus avoidance practices. This is no small ask for people who have had to endure privation in normal social interaction for almost a year now, something that has taken an enormous toll on mental and emotional wellbeing.

It is no small ask of businesses whose trading practices and financial security have undergone upheaval. And it is a mighty big ask of those labouring in the frontline of the intense response to the pandemic which has been demanded of our health, care, emergency and local government sectors and who need to keep summoning up the reserves of courage, energy and innovation that are keeping the country functioning.

None of us signed up for this. Like the innocent Tommies stepping out on the then virgin battlefields of the First World War, we thought it would all be over by Christmas, if not long before. But even those who don’t buy into Irish mainstream politics or possess any great love for its figureheads would have to acknowledge that there is an equal weight of truth to each of the two statements that the Taoiseach put emphasis on at the conclusion of his address on Tuesday: “The road we are on is hard”, “But it is a road we must take, together.” And in walking the last miles of the hard road, we must make sure we do not walk away from our humanity, or from our neighbours. So let’s keep the Border roads open, and use them to ensure that both parts of our island emerge from the shadow of Covid-19 with an enhanced rather than a diminished sense of solidarity and shared experience.

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