Our only choice is no government or bad government - Deirdre Heenan

The Covid Inquiry exposed a lamentable lack of leadership from both Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Baroness Foster and Michelle O’Neill have been giving evidence to the Covid-19 inquiry in Belfast
Neither Arlene Foster nor Michelle O’Neill emerged with credit from the Covid Inquiry's sittings in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

What have we learnt from the UK Covid Inquiry’s sitting in Belfast? The focus of this module was on core decision-making and governance. During the three-weeks, we heard from politicians, civil servants and health officials. Undoubtedly though, the inquiry moved up a gear in its final week when Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster were called as witnesses.

The hugely impressive Clair Dobbin KC quietly and forensically exposed the dysfunction at the heart of Stormont. Gentle, but pointed, interrogation highlighted inconsistencies, half-answers, evasion, conflation of issues, obfuscation and ambiguity.

Three key themes emerged: a lack of leadership; a lack of decisive action; and a lack of political maturity. These are essential components for good governance, but alas are in very short supply in the north.

Crisis requires leaders to take responsibility and to do this visibly. Leadership is an activity, not a position. It is about knowing what your job is and what is expected from you. It is about asking the right questions, seeing and seizing ways to move forward, demonstrating accountability, sharing risks and encouraging solidarity.

The inquiry laid bare the fact both women holding the first minister and deputy first minister roles displayed a lamentable lack of leadership.

Michelle O’Neill belatedly apologised for her attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral at the height of the pandemic. Previously she had been adamant that she would never apologise for going to the “funeral of a friend”.

Her actions and defiant response damaged public trust and confidence in the Covid response. Flagrantly breaching the rules was a catastrophic, but calculated, decision which demonstrated a complete lack of human connectedness.

Understandably this breach - which said that political leaders seemed unbeholden to their own rules, were above the law, untouchable - caused mass fury. It made a mockery of the sacrifices made by the thousands of bereaved families.

Predictably, it undermined the public health messaging and caused confusion as to what exactly we were allowed to do. Whilst the now-first minister’s remorse is welcome, it is simply not plausible that she did not foresee or understand the recklessness of her decision.

Arlene Foster’s evidence was a masterclass in a lack of humility, empathy and compassion. What she lacked in self-awareness was made up for in arrogance. Her vain fantasy that she had been an effective leader was completely demolished; her contribution largely consisted of blaming others, with deflection or denial.

There was no attempt to hide her disdain for this inquiry and her whole demeanour suggested resentment that should she be subjected to scrutiny. We were sleepwalking our way into a pandemic, and she seemed blissfully ignorant of vital facts. Her lack of attention to detail was once again apparent; it takes a special kind of cleverness to keep repeating the same mistakes.

In any global emergency pandemic, speed and clarity of response is essential. This inquiry painted a devastating picture of decisions ducked, dithering, oversights and opportunities missed. The government was hopelessly ill-prepared and oblivious to the responsibilities they now shouldered, reactive rather than proactive.

In England planning started in January, in Northern Ireland it was not properly activated until March 16, five days after the World Health Organisation had declared coronavirus a pandemic.

At a critical juncture the Executive Office did not step up or step in. Instead it was quite content to divest itself of responsibility and parrot the line: “That is a Department of Health issue.”

Why didn’t they ask what was going on? Why weren’t they insisting that emergency crisis arrangements were put in place? Could they really have believed that they were not responsible for taking the lead? Who had oversight of the planning?

It was fairly obvious at any early stage that a cross departmental response was essential, yet the Department of Health and Robin Swann maintained “a vice like grip”; civil contingencies, mitigations and protections for vulnerable people were not afforded appropriate priority.

Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral was a catastrophic, but calculated, decision which demonstrated a complete lack of human connectedness

Last but by no means least, a lack of political maturity compounded the challenges posed by the pandemic. There was no collective responsibility, divisions within the executive were played out in front of a terrified and bewildered public.

There was a calamitous devaluing of an all-island approach for political reasons, with the default position of ‘wait and see what Westminster does’. There was egregious misuse of the cross-community veto.

Phones and other devices were wiped. Those WhatsApp chats that were recovered revealed puerile, hostile, misogynistic and sectarian attitudes.

We can also throw into the mix selective memory, spin and deflection, all compounded by the leaking of sensitive information designed to destabilise.

Opinions and commentary on the value of this inquiry are very mixed. Some believe it was simply scratching the surface and key protagonists were not called. Like Scotland, we should have our own inquiry and hear more from families and those from the front line.

Others suggest that it was a colossal waste of time and resources. Already we have been subject to the same trite, glib responses from those in charge; ‘lessons will be learnt’; it was a ‘difficult time’ for decision makers; we must await the ‘findings’.

We don’t need to wait for three years to understand what this blistering assessment of our government has taught us. The rotting entrails have once again been exposed.

The main job of a government is to protect its citizens. We were failed miserably with devastating consequences.

Any hope of meaningful reform is simply tilting at windmills. Depressing and dispiriting as it may be, for the people of Northern Ireland, it is a choice between no government or bad government.