“Since Golden October declined into Sombre November…”

The opening lines of Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” strike a particular chord this year.  Not that October has been particularly golden here, apart from a pleasant Indian summer. But there is little doubt that Sombre November is set to strike.  Big time, as Ireland like a number of other European countries, struggles to combat the Second Wave of the Virus. With cases rising at over 1000 per day (now 54,476, almost double that on September 1)) we are in (virtually) Total Lockdown – until November 30.  After that we revert to partial lockdown. And then: Who knows?  Even the experts seem to accept that six weeks will not be sufficient to “kill” the virus. Pent up demand, frustration, shopping for Christmas, all threaten to generate another spike in cases with further lockdowns to come, this to continue until a vaccine arrives.

 As if that were not enough, in the New Year “Destiny waits” ((Eliot again). There had been a pious hope that there would be a welcome start to 2021 when Ireland joins the UN Security Council. Any celebration of this is likely to be overshadowed by the situation on the ground as Britain finally severs its EU links. There are two possible scenarios,  an optimistic one should the EU and Britain successfully negotiate a Free Trade Exit Agreement, a pessimistic one should Britain crash out in a No Deal departure. It’s a serious situation for the EU, but particularly so for Ireland, the most exposed Member State by far to the effects of Brexit.

Even an optimistic outcome will pose serious logistical supply and bureaucratic problems for Irish exporters and importers alike. A No Deal outcome would be a nightmare with WTO tariffs and quotas suddenly falling due on a range of Irish agricultural and other exports. Where before there was a relatively seamless corridor for Irish exports into and through the UK (and vice versa) a new quasi-Luddite system of physical and financial barriers would be erected. Currently negotiations are proceeding with the inevitable posturing on both sides; so we shall have to see.

A No Deal crash out also has the potential for damage to the Good Friday Agreement settlement in the North.  By passing legislation to come into play should there be no FTA deal, Britain has already shown brazen disregard for the international agreement it had freely entered into to ensure there would be no hard border in Ireland. Currently British spokemen brush the issue aside as hypothetical and irrelevant should there be a deal. A negotiating tactic? Again, we shall see.

It’s worth reflecting  that Brexit, essentially an assertion of English nationalism against the wishes of clear majorities in Scotland and the North, by its very nature cast at the least a spanner in the smooth functioning of the Good Friday Agreement.   There was a clear tribal split in the vote in the North, as shown in the Constituency results, with the minority who voted for Brexit predominantly working class Unionist –  a stark reminder that the division between the Communities remained, despite almost two decades of peace and lowering of tension. As in every vote in the North, the Border was an issue, but it seems clear that the same impulse to vote “leave” evident in working class England applied to some in the North also – alienation, a feeling that they were losing out and an aspiration to “take back control,” a feeling perhaps given added spice by the evidently more comfortable and satisfied minority community.

That spanner will be exacerbated by the effects even a benign Brexit will have on the flourishing and growing economic and social links between the two parts of the island. The food industry especially has developed strong cross border links and integrated production while thousands commute to work daily in both directions.  Whatever happens in the negotiations, there will be a shake-up, the extent yet to be determined. And here dovetailing, not at all neatly, with the Brexit event, Covid 19 intrudes.

There is simply no getting away from the ubiquitous Covid 19. The history of the Virus in the North was for long very similar to that on the rest of the island. Indeed for quite a time the North seemed to be doing dramatically better than its counterpart. During the first wave, from March to the end of May 2020, the North (with roughly 40% of the population) reported 4716 cases and 523 deaths, compared to 24,990 cases and 1649 deaths in the Republic, a substantially lower figure proportionately, even allowing for differences in reporting and recording. Indeed Northern Ireland’s death rate from the virus, then and now, remains the lowest in the UK and below that in the Republic.  For the next three months the numbers of cases and deaths in both parts of the island grew only slightly, as it appeared that the measures taken were working. At the end of August Northern Ireland had 7245 reported cases and 560 deaths while the Republic reported 28,811 cases and 1777 deaths.

Then effectively the wheels came off, particularly in the North, as restrictions were eased and the second wave began to kick in – a pattern common to most other European countries (Nordics and Baltics and several others excepted).  On 24 September the North had 9950 cases; just over four weeks later that figure has trebled to 31,034, while the Republic has also recorded sharp increases, though less severe, from 33,444 ( 24 September) to 54,476 yesterday. The North’s rate of increase is now the highest in the UK and far outstrips that in the Republic. Thus far deaths have not kept pace – 634 and 1871 respectively – reflecting the trend elsewhere in Europe as the disease is now hitting younger and less vulnerable sectors of the population – though whether deaths will continue relatively low as the numbers infected grow remains to be seen.

The surge in the North has not developed asymmetrically. For whatever reason Derry and Strabane, closest to the Border ,have seen the highest rise in cases, followed by Belfast , Mid Ulster, Newry and Mourne, all, interestingly, predominantly Nationalist areas. Significantly also, and proof that the Virus does not recognise borders, the areas worst hit in the South include the three adjacent Ulster Border counties, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Clearly there has been spill-over, a reflection of the  increased cross border contacts on the ground since 1998. This has led, naturally to calls for an all-island, all-Ireland approach to Covid control measures.

 While there is close cooperation there is no sign at present of a single integrated approach.  Indeed the DUP Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, has dragged Covid into the political arena by observing several days ago that infection rates in Nationalist areas were six times those in Unionist ones. Poots denied his remarks were sectarian citing “poor political leadership” by Sinn Fein, including attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral , had helped bring this about. Clearly community relations in the North have some distance still to travel. Poots, incidentally, is a “young earth creationist”, rejecting evolution and believing the world was created around 4000 B.C.



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