COVID-19: A BROKEN POLITICAL MESSAGE WILL BREAK THE LOCKDOWN – By Brian Rowan

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A VIRUS PLAYING INSIDE OUR POLITICS, OUR PATIENCE AND OUR HEADS

Some weeks ago, at the start of April, I wrote on this website that perhaps our politics is more resilient than we think.

It had emerged from those lost years of limbo into the unknown; a small place inside a world frame being asked big questions by this virus.

By the start of April, this new Executive had fought its way through the early arguments of lockdown and equipment and the challenges of what to do and when.

The road since then was onto the same page of that document released last Tuesday: CORONAVIRUS – EXECUTIVE APPROACH TO DECISION-MAKING.

It is a roadmap rather than a calendar, measuring careful steps on an unsure path away from the first peak.

The next challenge is to try to avoid a second spike.

WE DON’T SEE THE BACKSTAGE PLAY

Same-page politics is never a given; not something that can be guaranteed.

It is a work in progress or, to borrow a phrase, a battle a day.

We don’t see the backstage plays that are about how you bring differences and disagreements and compromises to an agreed – if strained – public position.

Same-page doesn’t mean everyone is thinking the same way.

Stephen Grimason – a former director of communications at Stormont – spoke to me of the pragmatism of Peter Robinson and the calmness of Martin McGuinness often being needed: “They found a way of getting it done,” he said.

He accepts, of course, that “you can’t hide the row forever” – that “it wasn’t always possible”; but you can limit and manage this in the public space.

This is what, I think, we are beginning to see in this Arlene Foster/Michelle O’Neill Executive; a real attempt to get things done.

PULLING TEETH 

One source with whom I spoke in recent days likened the lifting of each piece of the lockdown restrictions to “pulling teeth”.

“There is nothing risk-free,” he added.

This is why all of this needs to be argued out – because we are all in a different place; in politics, in our homes, on the street, in the hospitals, in the supermarkets and in the briefing rooms – all of us, in our own way and in our own circumstances, trying to work out the phased and measured steps that will represent the safest way forward.

How do you keep all of this between the hedges?

 

IN THIS UNKNOWN, IT IS LIKE WALKING IN A BLINDFOLD

“The situation with which we are dealing is unprecedented, very tough and extremely complicated,” health minister Robin Swann said on Thursday.

“Often the best we can do is find the least worst option. Keeping the lockdown takes a huge toll; but relaxing it too widely and too early would be catastrophic,” he added.

This is why the arguments in that political backstage are necessary.

The actions – the next steps – have to match that assessment and those words.

We heard Thursday’s same-page announcement on garden centres and on household recycling; and, then we listened as Edwin Poots turned from that page to another to reveal some of the next steps – including his decision on angling – in a BBC interview with Mark Carruthers on Thursday’s ‘The View’.

POLITICS AND PATIENCE ARE ALWAYS A TUG-OF-WAR

“A bit cheeky,” one source commented – meaning there are other things “over the line, not yet announced…sitting there waiting for the nod.”

Another source placed the Poots interview in the frame of breaking ranks and jumping the gun.

What the DUP minister announced on Thursday is within his decision-making authority. It had been through the assessment process of consultation with Robin Swann and the Department “to ensure that everything we do is in order”.

MANAGING THE MESSAGE

Managing modifications to the restrictions alongside the public health message is a difficult balance; trying not to mess the two things up.

A week or so ago, someone in politics spoke to me about the lockdown “breaking”.

The warning is in that one word; as is the challenge.

How do you begin to loosen the hold without creating a false impression of all being well?

The R Number, about which we hear so much doesn’t standstill. It is a volatile measurement of the threat the virus poses.

So, all of this, is the next conversation for the Executive when it meets on Monday morning with a news conference scheduled for later that day; these – the next tests for same-page politics.

On Thursday, deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill said: “It’s clear that we are now moving towards step 1 of our pathway.”

Then, on Friday, economy minister Diane Dodds spoke of more announcements about lifting other measures on Monday.

If I am reading the signals correctly, then the balancing act is not doing everything at once – not lifting every measure in the published step-one simultaneously – but in a gradual, phased way as we learn to walk in pace with what is being described as the “new normal”.

Golf, private prayer, being able to meet in small groups (4-6) maintaining social distancing are the next sequenced steps for which to to watch.

What will be their order and their place on the pathway?

There may also be more information about how assessments and decisions are being made – with the publication of the matrix; all of this, in the words of one source, about showing a way to the completion  of phase 1.

A MARATHON – NOT A SPRINT 

Everyday, we are reminded of the ugliness of this virus in those discarded gloves that now grow likes weeds out of our pavements and in other places where we walk.

This pandemic has changed the world and changed our ways; moved us onto different pages of learning; how to stay close at distance, how to survive and how to better appreciate all the things we took for granted and cannot now do.

While we learn on those different pages, we, now, more than ever, need and expect same-page politics at Stormont.

WHY?

Because a broken public message will break the lockdown – not in the gradual steps intended but in some false move.

Those things of which Grimason spoke – pragmatism and calmness – along with  hope, seen in measured change, are the qualities needed in the here-and-now.

Up the road, there will be other pages that will scrutinise and examine this pandemic and decision-making across the world.

There will be questions and conclusions on those pages – how, as in most wars, we send our young to the frontlines, and an assessment of how this fight, has left a sense and a mood of anger that, because of perceived failings, the old were left to die.

This is not a sprint.

It is a marathon and we are nowhere near the wall or the end.

 


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

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