Since the 11th January 2020 Northern Ireland has had a functioning government, from an election that took place in 2017. Just a month later, on the 27th February the first case of COVID-19 was recorded, and over 800 coronavirus related deaths have been recorded in the province since. For many in Northern Ireland, the coronavirus pandemic could not have come at a worse time.
The R-number in Northern Ireland has been estimated to be between 0.5-0.9; however it is believed that the infection rate is higher in care homes, rather than the community as a whole, which is inflating the number. By the 19th June, one-fifth of care homes in Northern Ireland were affected by the virus and accounted for 40% of the overall death toll. With NISRA confirming that 80% of all COVID-19 related deaths have been within the 75+ cohort.
However, Northern Ireland has the lowest recorded coronavirus death rate in the United Kingdom, as well as a lower rate than that of the Republic of Ireland. This has largely been spurred by the geography of the region and the sparse population centres within the province
Transmission of the virus within the community is the lowest in the UK, it has been estimated to be below 0.5, which has allowed Stormont to relax measures quicker than many thought possible.
Indoor gyms, tattoo shops, libraries, betting shops and outdoor playgrounds will all be opened by 17th July, accompanying the return of competitive sport and limited spectators with numbers increasing following the 31st July. Very few teams within the football league in Northern Ireland have a stadium, with most having limited seating in a single stand, therefore enabling sufficient levels of social distancing to take place, and football to resume.
Despite the progress made within the Executive the first and deputy first ministers; Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill respectively, have been at odds with each other since the exposure of the ‘Renewable Heating Incentive’ (RHI) scandal. The scheme involved subsidising renewable heating in the form of wooden pellets however, the rate paid was more than the cost of the fuel, and thus many applicants were making profits simply by heating their properties. The fallout from the scandal resulted in the collapse of the devolved administration for Northern Ireland for a record breaking 1,080 days. In the beginning it was feared that Northern Ireland would be the worst affected within the UK due to the still fresh division within Stormont.
The Executive rose to the challenge and is currently developing its own contact tracing app with it being compatible with an app being released in the Republic of Ireland. It is set to be based upon the toolkit released by Apple and Google, which focuses on privacy rather than data availability for epidemiologists. The UK government spent £12 million and 4 months to develop an app that did not work; while the Northern Ireland Department of Health suggests that their app could be ready by the end of July. If the app is successful it will only strengthen public support for the current administration.
In an interview with Sky News on the 24th May, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill have admitted that they have disagreed with certain measures implemented during the crisis such as the late closure of schools. However, the shared sentiment is that it has brought the parties closer together as Arlene Foster joking stated that they have been seeing so much of each other they were practically the same household. Both were in agreement however that the Northern Irish plan to escape lockdown would be different to that of the UK with Michelle O’Neill stating “We’re elected here… you can look at London and Dublin and you can pick the good and the bad approaches, but for me this is about our own response to COVID-19.” Adding “We do live on an island, we have a geographical advantage, it’s important that we uses it to our peoples‘ best advantage.”
The diversion from Westminster has led to Sinn Féin members and those who are from a republican background to believe calls for a united Ireland are increasing, especially with the current coalition government in the Republic setting up a new ‘unit’ whose role is to “to work towards a consensus on a united island”. However this has been touted to be a ploy to keep Sinn Féin voters in the south content, as a United Ireland was one of their manifesto pledges.
The cooperation between parties is not the only significant development within the province, it is being mirrored in the community, with Unionist and Nationalists coming together and helping each other out. Restaurants, take-aways and bars have all provided supplies to those who have been shielding while cross community involvement has been seen all over the province. This is a step forward in the right direction especially when this time of year can be unstable between communities as a result of the upcoming 12th July parades.
The Northern Irish Executive is no stranger to controversy, even in these times of crisis. Michelle O’Neill attended the funeral of republican Bobby Storey on the 30th June and was joined by over 100 mourners along with other high-ranking Sinn Féin members, including former leader Gerry Adams and current leader Mary Lou McDonald: in spite of current guidelines prohibiting more than 30 people at any gathering. The fallout has lead to Alliance and UUP leaders to call for her immediate resignation, while Arlene Foster has only gone so far to state a formal apology after she “Undermined the Executive”.
As ‘Funeralgate’ trends in Northern Ireland, many are not surprised at the actions of Sinn Féin attending a republican funeral, however, during a global pandemic is does undermine the message of progress which has been singing from the Executive over the past months. Even with this setback, the 5 party Executive has come a long way and is sewing the seeds of long-lasting cooperation between the two largest parties which has been a lacking in previous years. A pivotal step forward as the economic fallout of both coronavirus and Brexit in Northern Ireland rears its head.