How Covid-19 brought solidarity and kindness to Northern Ireland

This latest blog consists largely of a letter from my good friend Paul Nolan, the prominent Belfast social researcher, who portrays a Northern Ireland working hard to overcome its divisions in order to defeat the Corona virus, a picture one rarely sees in the media here in the Republic. Nolan writes:

“There are masked faces on the wall murals in Belfast, but they are not the usual paramilitaries. Instead they are the front line workers of the National Health Service, and their images have become the new popular icons in the current crisis. They first went up in Protestant areas, sometimes with a discreet or not so discreet union flag in the background – evidence of an understandable pride in the British National Health Service.

“More surprising has been the appearance of very similar murals in strongly republican areas, most particularly the Free Derry wall in the Bogside and the famous International Wall on the Falls Road, where the murals have traditionally been of national liberation movements around the world. There are of course no union flags in the nationalist areas, and that slightly problematic word ‘National’ is not used, just the letters NHS and the slogan ‘Supporting our front line workers.”

“There is no doubt though that it is the same message and no doubt that the social solidarity on display has managed to eclipse any community division. Elsewhere, that might be taken for granted. In a crisis it is only to be expected that people will come together. But Northern Ireland is, famously or infamously, a divided community. There is no occasion in Northern Ireland when people stand together to salute one flag, or experience themselves as one people.

“Until now, that is. Each Thursday night people come out to their front
doors, open their windows or stand on their balconies to clap their hands or bang saucepans to show their appreciation for front line workers. There are no orange and green versions of the rainbows the children post up in their windows, no Protestant or Catholic way to wrap coloured wool around a tree, no sectarian way to hand paint a message of hope on a pebble. It’s a strange thing to say, but Northern Ireland is experiencing an outbreak of kindness.

“Take the scene in Holy Cross School in Ardoyne in north Belfast. Back in 2001 this small primary school achieved notoriety when children as young as four, accompanied by their frightened parents, had to face a gauntlet from loyalists as they made their way to class every morning, and it required a highly militarised police escort to hold back the inflamed mob. The images were thought to be redolent of Alabama in the 1960s. Last week more than 500 volunteers from the cross community North Belfast Food Bank were using the empty school building to get food parcels out to both communities.

“The Orange Order has cancelled its 12th July procession and its members are busy raising funds to supply hospitals with PPE kit. In Larne the Craigy Hill Bonfire Committee has scrapped its bonfire plans and is using the money saved to send out food and toiletries to those in need.

“A metric to gauge this new mood came last week with the publication of a new report by Amnesty International. It showed that two thirds of people across Northern Ireland have taken part in the ‘Clap for Carers’ which takes place every Thursday evening. It showed that people were often talking to neighbours and helping strangers for the first time. Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland
director, said: “This is us at our very best…In the midst of difficult times, people here are responding with huge compassion and solidarity towards their neighbours and to those on the front line.”

“By a coincidence the Amnesty report appeared at the same time as a book called Humankind: A Hopeful History, by the Dutch author Rutger Bregman. The book, which has attracted much media attention, argues that despite the evidence of increased ethnic tensions and the rise of aggressive nationalist movements across the world, people are basically good and we should remain optimistic that Enlightenment ideals will triumph. Northern Ireland does not feature in the book, but in its current mood it could be taken as an illustration of that core thesis.

“How long can it last? A mood that was born out of a crisis may dissipate quickly when the crisis passes. It may even collapse before that. The cohesion at community level is not reflected within the power-sharing Executive. There are regular reports of tension around the Executive table. This in itself is not surprising; in fact it would be surprising if there were not tensions.

“The complex constitutional engineering of the Good Friday Agreement means that five parties have somehow to find agreement on all key policy issues. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are united in the view that it would be impossible to share power with Sinn Fein, but that is what four northern parties actually do on a daily basis. As in every other country dealing with Covid-19, there is a split between conservative parties which wish to see the economy protected and left-of-centre parties which want to put people first. The difference is that in Northern Ireland they are yoked together in government.

“On top of that is layered another divide. Unionist parties do not want to break with the overall direction of government in the UK (particularly when that government will be asked to support the North’s devastated economy). Nationalists feel that the island of Ireland is clearly one epidemiological unit and want public health policies aligned on an all-island basis.The magnetic pulls of London and Dublin are always in danger of reopening the historic divide. Despite that, this week all five political parties united behind a plan for ending the lockdown. This meant the DUP breaking with Boris Johnson, and the nationalist parties accepting less of an alignment with the South than they would have liked. For this perhaps brief moment, the politicians and people of Northern Ireland want to face this existential threat together.”

There is a terribly lazy tendency here in the Republic to portray everything in the North as going wrong, and Northerners as difficult people incapable of running their affairs in any coherent and equitable way. But it is sometimes we in the South who get things wrong. A classic example was the ‘Irish Times’ front page lead story on 28th April, headlined ‘Covid-19 cases soar in Border areas.’  Despite the assertion from the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, that it was unlikely this was due to a ‘spillover’ of infection from Northern Ireland, the article went on to quote the eminent British public health expert Dr Gabriel Scally (who is originally from Newry) contradicting him by saying that the “most reasonable explanation” for this growth “has to be the fact they are Border counties.” Scally said he believed the incidence of the disease was higher in the North and condemned the North’s official data as “very limited.”.

What this story left out was that while Cavan had passed out Dublin as the Southern county with the most Covid-19 cases relative to population, neighbouring Fermanagh had the lowest incidence of any county in Northern Ireland (and far below the level in Cavan). And, as I pointed out in a letter to the ‘Irish Times’ on the same day, according to my calculations (not contradicted in any subsequent letter or report), the number of deaths in the North at that point was actually slightly lower than in the Republic.

We in the Republic always need to be wary of the nationalist ‘confirmation bias’ (the tendency for people to interpret new evidence as confirmation of their existing beliefs) that is never very far from the surface in our view of and dealings with Northern Ireland.

P.S. Further to my blog earlier this month on the Irish language, I have been reading a book called Protestants and the Irish Language,¹ by Ian Malcolm, who is that rare and wonderful person: a passionate Irish speaker who is also a unionist. He writes about a Gael-Linn ‘enrichment programme in Gaelic studies’ which was put on in 19 state (i.e. majority Protestant) and integrated secondary schools in the late 1990s and early 2000s (that benign moment in our history). In 1998-99 nearly 700 16-17 year olds, the great majority of them Protestants, took this course – which included an introduction to the Irish language – and evaluations showed that most of them enjoyed it.

However, in the inevitable way of things in Northern Ireland, changing British regulations soon put a stop to this fascinating experiment. A new examination, AS Level, was introduced in 2000 for this age group, and the optional Gaelic Studies course was inevitably dropped by most schools as the extra exam pressure took its toll. But it shows what can be done with goodwill and innovative and unsectarian thinking.

¹ Towards Inclusion: Protestants and the Irish Language, Blackstaff Press, 2009

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