On RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today, Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said that, prior to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s address on Friday past, the Irish Government had not spoken to the Stormont Executive about its plans, as it’s priority was to inform the “Irish people” first.
There was, of course, an immediate backlash on Twitter reminding Regina Doherty of the sizeable number of Irish people who live in the north and how her comment was tone deaf in that context. It is fair to say that the “othering” of Irish citizens in the north by Regina Doherty is at odds with past statements by both Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney who vowed that Irish citizens in the north would “never again be left behind.”
Given that Regina Doherty lost her Dáil seat in the General Election in February, she is unlikely to trouble us for much longer should government formation talks in Dublin progress and she is removed from her caretaker Ministerial role.
What should concern us much more is that when he was asked about it later in the morning, Simon Coveney said that during a telephone call with Executive Ministers on Thursday, a “heads-up” was given that a plan would be approved but the exact detail was not shared.
That brings us back to the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding north-south cooperation signed on 8th April 2020 signed by Chief Medical Officers Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Michael McBride on behalf of Health Ministers Simon Harris and Robin Swann.
The need for an MoU arose over a débacle where Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced a joint purchase of PPE from China by government departments north and south, but that deal subsequently fell through before the ink was dry.
Everyone knows a Memorandum of Understanding has no legal force, rather it is a good faith commitment to work together on areas of common interest or necessity.
The document sets out that “Everything possible will be done in co-ordination and cooperation between the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive and with the active involvement of the health administrations in both jurisdictions to tackle the outbreak. Protection of the lives and welfare of everyone on the island is paramount, and no effort will be spared in that regard.”
Two of the underpinning principles of the agreement are set out as follows:
“Openness – to ensure transparency of approach;
Consistency – to ensure where possible, both governments adopt similar approaches as guided by the scientific evidence”
A “heads-up” without exact detail is not transparent, nor does it allow for development of similar approaches north and south to ensure a joined up approach which protects the lives and welfare of everyone on the island.
Yesterday, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill announced that the Stormont Executive is working on a road map which it hopes to publish later in the week. But it should not be playing catch-up in the circumstances where an all-island approach has already been agreed in principle.
Yes, the Irish government should have briefed the Stormont Executive in a more fulsome manner on the details of its plan before Leo Varadkar’s announcement on Friday. By the same token, there was a responsibility on Ministers and Departmental officials in Stormont to ask for that detail.
A dumb curate never got a parish. The Stormont Executive needs to speak up and tell the Irish government that it expects them to respect the Memorandum of Understanding that has been agreed, both in the spirit and the letter.
The response to COVID-19 requires a whole government approach across this island, a consistent message and regular information sharing between governments and with the public. This virus is a common enemy of everyone who calls this island home. By uniting in a common approach to fighting it, it will be defeated. It will not be defeated by a “heads-up” and a lack of inquiry.