Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: No united front from executive as lockdown anger grows

Michelle O'Neill talks to the media in Coalisland yesterday. Picture by Hugh Russell

NOT only do we still have a pandemic crisis, but now also a crisis of communication.

As the retail and hospitality sectors express understandable anger at the latest plans for a two-week lockdown during the busy Christmas period, the fact there has been so much dithering and false starts means future-proofing business is now all but impossible.

And yet there wasn't a minister in sight to explain the major decision taken by the executive that filtered through late on Thursday evening.

BBC flagship politics show The View went to air, stressing that the lack of political participation in the programme was not for the want of trying. All requests for interviews had been declined.

There was no executive press conference planned for Friday and so to date no public show of unity to defend and explain the reasons for the delayed lockdown, weeks after it was advised by experts.

Instead there were a series of solo runs.

Naomi Long was the first to make an appearance on The Nolan Show, but the justice minister was speaking in a personal capacity and not as part of any planned executive engagement.

Infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon later appeared on Talkback, saying information the executive received five weeks ago hadn't changed and advised a six-week lockdown. Again Ms Mallon was not acting in an official executive capacity.

Arlene Foster appeared to deny her party had come under pressure to change direction, saying the Executive "had to act" given that the R-number - the average number of people infected by one person - had risen.

The DUP have been speaking publicly about their desire for mass testing, as is currently taking place in Liverpool. Should the money for that materialise, could it be partially responsible for the dramatic change in tone from the party?

Education minister Peter Weir has been communicating with the public mainly via Twitter, denying speculation that schools will be closing early next month.

Robin Swann, again acting alone and not standing behind an official Stormont podium, said the medical advice had been "consistent" over the last number of weeks, adding that the number of inpatients seen due to Covid hadn't changed in 12 days, making further restrictions inevitable.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill gave a solo press conference in her native Co Tyrone, saying she understood the anger felt by businesses that would have to close next week but adding that it was was the "correct decision".

The Sinn Féin MLA said the executive needed to meet "today, tomorrow, Sunday, Monday" to get financial support in the pockets of firms.

But will they? There had been been no official confirmation last night that the executive plan to pull together over the weekend to get much-needed financial relief out of the Stormont bank account and into the pockets of small business.

That lack of organised, united political engagement, used with great impact during the spring lockdown, is now becoming problematic as public frustration grows.

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey launched a scathing attack on the Executive, saying it was time for an 'expert taskforce' to manage the crisis and take it out of the hands of a five-party coalition which she said was "riddled with competing political priorities".

The smaller parties have also called for Executive engagement with MLAs in relation to changes to restrictions so they can better advise their constituents.

The lack of communication is not just with the public - in a bizarre turn of events, elected MLAs were ringing political reporters on Thursday night for updates on the latest lockdown.

This is a winter like no other, bleak and hopeless for so many unsure of how they will survive financially, mentally, emotionally.

Leadership is crucial to getting the public through, not just by legislating in a proportionate and responsible way, but also in terms of confidence in those leading the institutions.

People need to see a united Executive rather than just a collection of political parties, all trying to advance their own agenda and keep their own voters on side.

Can Monday bring about a change in not just how decisions are made, but how they are communicated?

Going by previous periods of crisis management, that's far from certain.

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