Patrick Murphy: Covid was another shameful episode in Stormont’s long and shameful history

Until we abandon the Good Friday Agreement, nothing will change

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Robin Swann was Health Minister during the pandemic
Robin Swann was health minister during the pandemic in an executive led by DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

This column would like to apologise for being too polite about the Stormont Executive during the Covid pandemic.

Although highly critical of the government (apart from Robin Swann), the column used words and phrases such as “Stormont’s consistent failure”, “cannot adequately protect the lives of our citizens” and “maladministration”.

I realise now that those expressions were unbecoming. As the ongoing Covid inquiry has shown, a more colourful description lies in those immortal words of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride: “dysfunctional b*****ds” (again, not counting Robin Swann).

His words, and the associated information from the Covid inquiry, should come as no surprise to anyone. While Boris Johnson partied during Covid in Downing Street, Sinn Féin and the DUP political-partied in Stormont. Johnson has gone. Sinn Féin and the DUP are still there.

March 2020 was a heart-breaking time for many of us, but by the beginning of May, this column recognised that Stormont’s two main parties were using the pandemic for their own political purposes.

It highlighted Sinn Féin’s attack on Robin Swann (their coalition partner), claiming that it was their job to hold him accountable – with no reference as to who would hold them accountable. The column then reported the party’s claim that the pandemic had brought Irish unity closer. (No, I’m not making this up.)

They wanted to follow Dublin’s policy on Covid, but the DUP supported the British approach, which they called “acting on scientific information”. (That’s “scientific” as in Boris Johnson.)

Oh, and that’s the DUP which rejects science, biblically believing that the earth is 6,000 years old even though people were living along the Bann over 9,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, people died.

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill (second from right) launched her 10-year vision to transform the current health and social care system. Pictured with First Minister, Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness and Professor Rafael Bengoa. Picture by Kelvin Boyes, Press Eye
Michelle O'Neill (second from right), pictured with then First Minister Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Professor Rafael Bengoa, served as health minister for less than a year in 2016/17

Neither party admitted that the health system was in chaos. Michelle O’Neill walked out from the health department in January 2017, when her party claimed it could not support the Executive after the RHI scandal.

The current “first minister for all” became a health minister for no-one and we were left 18 months behind the rest of the UK in our pandemic preparations.

As the summer wore on, the DUP claimed that nationalist areas were more infected than unionist areas. (It was presumably a highly Catholic virus.) Sinn Féin demanded that the border be kept open, but different regulations between north and south on lockdown meant that an open border helped to spread the virus.

And more people died.

By November 2020, I suggested (politely – perhaps too politely) that the two main parties should stay away and let Robin Swann get on with the job because he had not “used the current pandemic to make political capital for his own party, or to score points against political opponents”.

Health Minister Robin Swann during a daily press update on the response to the Covid-19 crisis in 2020
Health Minister Robin Swann during a daily media update on the response to the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 (Liam McBurney/PA)

In the same month, the DUP used its veto twice to block proposals from Robin Swann regarding Covid-related restrictions. Meanwhile, the Executive wondered if they could open cafes but not restaurants and debated the difference between them.

And more people died.

The moral of this sad story is that the current Covid inquiry has not revealed anything we did not already know, particularly since the phones of those involved have had their records deleted. The inquiry has merely supported the analysis offered in this column and elsewhere during the pandemic.

It was another shameful episode in Stormont’s long and shameful history. Both the old and the new Stormonts have abused power for political control. The only difference is that one built up the NHS and the other is now knocking it down (and blaming Robin Swann).

So what will happen now? Nothing. Sinn Féin and the DUP will remain in power perpetually and in a few weeks, Stormont will publish more photographs of the First and Deputy First Minister doing lots of jolly things. Stormont has become Hello magazine.

Until we abandon the Good Friday Agreement, nothing will change

The electorate will then, as usual, vote along sectarian lines in the Westminster election. Covid, like RHI, will be history. Until we abandon the Good Friday Agreement, nothing will change.

When the genocidal Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, it designated 1975 as Year Zero. This meant that there was no history before that date, so no-one could raise anything from the past.

For Stormont, every year in its performance is Year Zero.

Stormont has no past failures, because it is driven by sectarianism – and that is why the Covid inquiry will make no difference to our failed system of government.