Friday, 18 December 2020
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I wish everybody a happy Christmas. I want to come back to the public health situation in the North, which I raised on Wednesday. I want to express my gratitude to the national ambulance service crews who will travel to Lurgan, Belfast and Craigavon hospitals this weekend to support the front line. I repeat that whatever help is needed we should give it.
The Executive yesterday took on the advice of the public health officials, which was the right and only thing to do given the potentially catastrophic circumstances. I am glad all the political parties recognised that but to be clear, there is a great deal of disparity North and South when it comes to compliance and following public health guidance, the lack of which is driving up the numbers. People need to ask themselves the reason for that. A fully integrated all-Ireland approach would undoubtedly have been the best approach. It puts the logical in epidemiological but, unfortunately, given where relationships are in the North, that was, and is, unlikely.
How can we expect others to behave differently if we are not willing to behave differently ourselves? When we face differences and disagreements in the North, the answer always lies in the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. The essence of the agreement is power-sharing. Power-sharing has always been about problem-sharing - the idea that communities would come together in partnership as equals and with respect to solve problems that unite them instead of focusing on what divides them. Covid-19 could have strengthened relationships in the North, and North and South, but that has not been the case and it is an awful pity.
The ambulances going North this weekend is uncommon but it is not unheard of because a memorandum of understanding exists through the North-South Ministerial Council on cross-Border co-operation on ambulance services. That is thanks to the framework of the Good Friday Agreement and the health sectoral work. Where would we be now in responding to a public health crisis together, with three more years under our belt, if the Executive and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement had not have lied idle for three years?
We have a serious situation now that affects everyone on the island and we have a window of opportunity to react for the benefit of the whole island. If we are bringing in restrictions in the South, we should align with the North as much as necessary to avoid see-saw, out-of-kilter guidelines around the Border area and address case numbers in places such as Donegal and Louth. We may not get the official integrated North-South plan we want but we can create the alignment that we need. I again wish everybody a happy Christmas.