Covid Inquiry: Stormont’s ‘best’ wasn’t good enough and failed us all - Tom Kelly

A complete lack of foresight or leadership by ministers and the civil service was on show during the inquiry’s Belfast sessions

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Members of Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice hold a press conference outside the Clayton Hotel in Belfast
Members of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, who said the actions of the DUP and Sinn Féin during the pandemic, as revealed by the Covid Inquiry, had compounded their grief (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Belfast leg of the Covid Inquiry won’t bring much comfort to the families of those who lost loved ones during the pandemic. If anything, it may even exacerbate their sense of loss, their feelings of helplessness, their frustrations and anger.

And they have every right to be angry, because they were let down by senior civil servants and grandstanding politicians.

Clearly, Northern Ireland wasn’t prepared for a pandemic or, for that matter, any large scale disaster.

Contingency planning was somewhere between non-existent and not fit for purpose.

And that’s verified by those involved in the contingency planning unit; 22 years ago it had 16 staff but by 2021 it had just four.

Did no-one within the ranks of the senior civil service notice that this important cross-cutting and crucial division was so decimated? Apparently not.

Either they had great faith in the Almighty not to smite the north with some calamitous plague or they were gamblers betting on what had never happened, never happening.

No real answer was provided during the inquiry as to how or why Northern Ireland was so ill prepared. If anything this lack of preparedness proves that this is place is like some kind of Ruritanian backwater ruled by those with delusions of grandeur but who, in truth, are as naked as an Emperor with no clothes.

The decision by Sinn Féin ministers to wipe their phones - despite being directed not to - is contemptible. Government is about accountability and transparency. Such actions wouldn’t be acceptable in Leinster House

Whilst Carál Ní Chuilín’s candour and apologies over her attendance and use of ministerial car at the funeral of Bobby Storey was refreshing, it was way too late to make a difference to those in society who obeyed pandemic restrictions, sometimes at great personal cost and loss.

As one of the lawyers for the bereaved families said, the apology came with the benefit of hindsight, when any ounce of foresight could have informed the minister of the insensitivity and hurt which would be caused by her actions and those of her colleagues.

Likewise, First Minister Michelle O’Neill seemed genuinely contrite when giving evidence but it was all a bit too little, too late.

The decision by Sinn Féin ministers to wipe their phones - despite being directed not to - is contemptible. Government is about accountability and transparency. Such actions wouldn’t be acceptable in Leinster House. Sinn Féin has to adhere to the same high standards of public life which they would apply to others.

Former first minister, Arlene Foster, went to the inquiry and by her demeanour and tone, she did herself no favours.

Many of those affected by the pandemic were obviously not impressed, and the contemporaneous exchanges between her and Ms O’Neill given to the inquiry demonstrated all too clearly that dysfunction was at the heart of the NI Executive.

The DUP WhatsApp messages reveal an unedifying culture of gossipy bitchiness, misogyny, casual sectarianism and infantile humour. The mocking references to Trinity and QUB educated Nichola Mallon and minister Naomi Long displays the usual hallmarks of immature adolescent males sniggering at double entendres in Carry On movies.

The electorate deserved better.

The Good Friday Agreement didn’t give us dysfunctional government - no, that was home grown. The GFA was predicated on having people in power who would act with generosity, grace and goodwill - a lofty aspiration ground down by the pettiness of pygmy politicians who couldn’t see further than the length of their noses.

The pandemic had no respect for borders and didn’t distinguish between nationalist, unionist or others.

And yet, those elected brought to the table their own prejudices, their own narrow political considerations and their own sense of entitlement, and in doing so let down those they ought to have served.

Civil servants and politicians told the inquiry that they ‘did their best’. Maybe they did, but their best fell short and consequently they failed everyone equally and without discrimination. That’s some achievement.