As bland policy documents go, the joint policy framework just outlined by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in a bid to form the next government is among the very blandest. In 23 pages it manages to say almost nothing. But that is one of the points of the exercise: if implemented, they cannot be criticised for failing to deliver on its vague aspirations. The second objective of the document is to lure another party, or a coterie of elected representatives, to join the two parties to form the government of the 33rd Dáil. Together, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil only have 72 seats in the Dáil and they need 81 to form a majority; more than that to form one that stands a chance of lasting.

The document makes it clear that the two ‘civil war parties’ have not given up on the Green Party. The Greens have been preposterous in their asks (always deniable, flown as kites). They want a sprinkling of ministerial portfolios, as many of their policies implemented as possible despite the fact that they only have 12 seats, and even what they styled as ‘a government of national unity’ to confront COVID-19. Good luck with that. The joint policy framework provides them with a basis to negotiate in good faith and they probably will.

It is customary for Irish government framework policy documents to include salutary plans and hopes for N. Ireland, and this one is no different. But the Irish government could be faced with a very substantial engagement with Northern Ireland due to COVID-19 and it better be ready for it.

In such a crisis as this, the speed and decisiveness with which governments act are all-important. Ireland’s response has been fast and effective. While Leo Varadkar detractors made their views abundantly known through the ballot box in February, few now regret that during this time of pandemic our Taoiseach is a medical doctor. The UK’s response, however, has been very lackluster. Two examples illustrate this contrast. The Cheltenham Festival, a four-day series of horse races that brought together a quarter of a million people in England on March 16th-19th galloped ahead as planned. Whereas in Ireland St. Patrick’s Day parades, scheduled for exactly the same period, were cancelled. It was the right call. Last year as many as 2 million people attended the parades and celebrations. Such a series of mass gatherings this year would have been catastrophic for the spread of the virus.

Public health expert Dr. Gabriel Scally recently warned that while ‘historically islands have advantages when dealing with epidemics…controlling movement to and from the island is comparatively simple…in this coronavirus pandemic, Ireland’s geographical advantage is being squandered by the adoption of very different approaches to dealing with the disease’. What he was referring to, without quite saying it, is the difficulty arising from two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

The Northern Irish experience of the pandemic is bound up with its peculiar political structure and its geography. It is quite plausible, on current projections, that COVID-19 cases will peak much sooner in Ireland than in the UK, which keeps its borders open and does not quarantine or trace travellers on arrival. If the divergence between Ireland and the UK becomes dramatic, it would cause a dilemma in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Medically, it would make sense to harmonise decisions on an all-Ireland basis, but that would be politically anathema to unionists. Consultant at St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin, Dr. Paddy Mallon, recently called for ‘protecting our borders and stopping new infections coming in’. That makes perfect sense, but when you pose the question ‘what are Ireland’s borders?’ political consensus in Northern Ireland becomes almost impossible.  

Even so, speaking in Dublin last September, DUP leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster said: ‘What we want to see is a recognition that we are on an island, we do recognise the unique history and geography, but we also have to recognise that we are in the United Kingdom’. In her call for recognition of these facts, Foster left open to interpretation how and when we should recognise them. Up to what point does Northern Ireland’s political connection with the UK supersede its unique history and geography? Conversely, when does Ireland’s island status take precedence over Northern Ireland’s status in the UK? Surely, if there is ever a moment when Ireland’s island identity overrides contrary political pulls against it, it is during a time of pandemic.

Some generosity from the DUP’s opposite number in Stormont, Sinn Féin, would go a long way towards recognition of these realities, and that requires a grown-up response to the prospect of British soldiers in Northern Ireland helping to distribute medical supplies and even to man field hospitals. It requires some sensitivity as well. Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has expressed support for ‘everything that can be done…to ensure we have the maximum level of all-Ireland harmonisation to save lives’. The concept of all-Ireland anything straights Unionists’ backs, so why not just say cooperation across the island?

Absent Unionists’ consent to a more harmonised approach to quarantining, tracking and testing on the island, the status quo could prevail, leading to many preventable deaths from COVID-19 in Northern Ireland. The UK is capable, in these circumstances, of regulative divergence if the political will exists to underpin it. Already we have seen, in the United States and in Brazil, an enormous divergence between states and federal government in response to COVID-19 and Northern Ireland could follow suit. This goes well beyond the constitutional question. It could save lives and, in the process, do the cause of pluralist politics in the North a world of good.