Why is the Covid Inquiry so confrontational? - Newton Emerson

Learning lessons rather than apportioning blame would be more useful

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Arlene Foster is giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry in Belfast today
Arlene Foster gave a trademark brusque performance at the Covid Inquiry

Arlene Foster has been criticised for a brusque performance at the Covid Inquiry, but the former first minister’s exasperation is partly understandable.

Something is off about the inquiry’s confrontational approach. It looks too much like a criminal trial, even allowing for a retired judge in the chair and barristers asking the questions.

That might seem appropriate with profound matters of life and death under examination. However, it should be safe to assume no public servant set out to cause harm during the pandemic.

The ‘just culture’ approach of the aviation industry might be a more useful model than a courtroom drama. Aircraft disasters are investigated with the emphasis on learning lessons rather than apportioning blame.

Investigators still have to do both, as does the Covid Inquiry, but it feels like the inquiry - at this stage, anyway - is getting the balance wrong.


The Bobby Storey memorial parade has been raked over at the Covid inquiry, extracting a flawed apology from Michelle O’Neill, although it is generally advisable to accept any apology and move on.

The real concern still hanging over the events of June 2020 is beyond the inquiry’s remit: Sinn Féin can summon several thousand ‘black and whites’ from across Ireland and have them take over the streets.

Is this a harmless historical re-enactment society or unacceptably sinister from a potential party of national government? At the very least, Sinn Féin could stop calling other people ‘Blueshirts’.

Bobby Storey funeral
The funeral of Bobby Storey was attended by thousands of people during Covid lockdown in June 2020


The ruling by Belfast High Court against the Rwanda asylum scheme is an immediate problem for the DUP, whose claims about watering down the Windsor Framework have been exposed.

It will quickly become a problem for other parties if immigration in Northern Ireland becomes contentious - events in the Republic show how easily this can turn politics on its head.

If the public mood sours against the Windsor Framework, most parties will follow. Labour has promised to scrap the Rwanda scheme, so the saga could be over in months.

Or this could be just the start. A group of 19 EU member states are lobbying the European Commission to permit Rwanda-type schemes, and for the EU to set up its own. They expect this to move up the agenda after next month’s European elections.

The political and legal complexity of what this might mean for Northern Ireland will ensure Brexit-level confusion for years. If nothing else, it will be a shock to all the Europhiles in the UK and Ireland who think the sainted EU would never do such a thing.


Tents pitched by asylum seekers along a stretch of the Grand Canal in Dublin have been removed
Tents pitched by asylum seekers along a stretch of the Grand Canal in Dublin have been removed, as immigration has become a political issue north and south (Brian Lawless/PA)

The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey has been published by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University. As usual, it shows Alliance as the most preferred party, with 22 per cent support.

Sinn Fein and the DUP are on 19 and 15 per cent respectively. Statistician Peter Donaghy has explained this is because non-voters tend to say they would vote Alliance. Once this is accounted for, the findings for other parties are consistent with election results.

Republicans have nevertheless criticised the survey because they do not like its finding of 35 per cent support for a united Ireland. They should relax. For all we know, pro-union non-voters would not vote in a border poll either.

A timely finding in the survey is sympathy for asylum seekers. Two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I think it is our duty to provide protection to refugees who are escaping persecution in their home country.” Only 9 per cent disagreed and 3 per cent strongly disagreed.

But again, events in the Republic show these sentiments do not guarantee political calm.


Chinese Ambassador Zheng Zeguang with the First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly
Chinese ambassador Zheng Zeguang gave a speech in Ulster University during his visit to Northern Ireland, and also met with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly

Chinese students in the UK face “harassment and surveillance” from their government in a “campaign of transnational repression”, according to a new report from Amnesty International.

This is rather awkward for Ulster University, which last month hosted the launch of a ‘China-UK/Northern Ireland Education Cooperation Forum’ at its new Belfast campus.

The keynote speech was delivered by China’s ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, who used it to complain about “those pointing fingers at China and obstructing exchanges and collaboration.”

“Anyone with a historic vision, pragmatic attitude and sound judgment should reject such noises”, he said.

It is a sign of the times that Ulster University imported a cynical communist from China. It used to produce its own.


Alliance MLA Eoin Tennyson has announced he will bring a private member’s bill to ban so-called gay conversion if DUP communities minister Paul Givan does not do so.

Givan has opposed a ban, so it appears Tennyson will be taking on a legislative challenge that has defeated determined governments - the Conservatives have been trying since 2018.

Most of the 16 countries that have implemented bans have only done so for registered healthcare professionals. It is a different matter to ban the private conversations, often in church settings, that such ‘therapy’ generally entails.

Rights to free expression, association and religion give strong protection to these exchanges. A ban is particularly challenging in the UK, where there is no regulation or even legal definition of therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors.

None of this means legislation is impossible but it is far more problematic than most proponents will admit.


Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT NI. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Justin McCamphill from the NASUWT says the union will be paying close attention to nepotism in teacher appointments

The religious discrimination exemption for teacher recruitment has officially ended, two years after Stormont passed a law to abolish it and 26 years after it was put into law at the time of the Good Friday Agreement.

The exemption meant there was no requirement to monitor the community background of teachers. It will be interesting to see what statistics emerge: CCMS said in 2013 it had never used the exemption, while all school sectors like to say they have a mixed workforce. However, blatant use of the exemption is rarely required.

The NASUWT trade union says it will now “be paying close attention to the long-standing practice of bringing teachers in without interview by misusing the NISTR (Northern Ireland Supply Teachers Register) and the chronic level of nepotism in teacher appointments”.

It may soon be apparent that nepotism has been the real issue all along.