Fintan O’Toole: Covid-19 has redefined Ireland’s relationship with Britain

So many unforeseen things have happened in the past few months that it is easy to miss a big thing that did not happen. In this existential crisis, Ireland did not take its lead from Britain. Not only that, but no sane person thought that it should.

Given the tragic mess that the Johnson-Cummings administration has made of its response to the pandemic, this seems obvious enough. But it does nonetheless feel like a moment of great psychological significance for Ireland – and one that says a lot about Britain’s standing in the world.

It’s fair to say, I think, that if Covid-19 had struck the world even five years ago, one of the first questions on the minds of Irish officials would have been: what is Britain doing? And this would not have been particularly shameful or slavish. There are good historical reasons to be hyper-sensitive about this instinct – no one wants to be accused of being stuck in a colonial mindset. But in this case, it would have been merely sensible.

Britain is a big country with a wealth of scientific and medical expertise, concentrated in some of the best universities in the world. We share a language, and much of our own scientific elite has studied or worked in Britain. The political and media discourse in London spills over naturally to Dublin.

When you’re dealing with a virus spread by human contact, it would be rational to think of the archipelago as a single public health space

So, faced with an unknown virus and a potential catastrophe, it would have been quite natural for scientists, technocrats and politicians here to look across the Irish Sea for guidance.

 This habit was well established from the beginning of the State, and most scholars of Irish governance have taken it for granted. For example, in his book Contemporary Ireland, Eoin O’Malley wrote that: “One area where the influence of the UK has continued is the way the Irish civil service looks to and copies the UK for solutions to similar problems.”

That was published as recently as 2017. 

And, in the abstract, this would actually have made a lot of sense in the pandemic crisis. Ireland shares both a land border and a common travel area with the UK. There are about 110 million Border crossings in a normal year, including about 15.4 million trips between the two islands.

Vital differences

But of course that’s not what happened. Not only did Ireland diverge radically from British policy, but the differences have proved to be literally vital. To put it starkly: hundreds of people are alive today in Ireland because Dublin did not take its lead from London. The breaking of the old habit has been a lifesaver.

The Irish response to the crisis was far from perfect. In relation to vulnerable people in residential institutions, the sins of omission were mortal ones. But many lives were saved because Ireland took an internationalist approach to the pandemic. It looked to what was happening in other European Union countries and followed the advice of the World Health Organisation.

Cummings Dominic

Johnston’s special adviser Dominic Cummings.

The Boris Johnson/Dominic Cummings administration in London, meanwhile, was so wrapped up in the English exceptionalism at the heart of its Brexit project that it was convinced the virus would treat Blighty as a special case.

It is probable that Johnson’s slovenly response has ended up killing more than 20,000 people

The crucial period was the first three weeks in March. The British government at that time was still dallying with the idea of herd immunity, or, as Johnson put it, the possibility that plucky Brits might just “take it on the chin”. But what happened in the period between March 11th and March 23rd is nonetheless almost inexplicable.

On March 11th, the WHO declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. On March 12th, Johnson used a live briefing to “level with the British public”, saying that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”. On the same day, the British government’s risk assessment of Covid-19 moved from moderate to high. Social distancing measures were introduced. It seemed clear that the London government was finally recognising the urgency of the crisis.

And then – nothing.  Bars, restaurants, shops and some other premises were allowed to stay open until March 20th. Only on March 23rd did Johnson announce stricter lockdown measures, closing all non-essential shops, and stopping social gatherings. It was during this period of 12 days that Liverpool played Atletico Madrid at Anfield, in front of a crowd that included 3,000 fans from Madrid, a city already in lockdown.

The Cheltenham racing festival went ahead on March 16th to 19th. Public transport remained packed. Pubs and restaurants stayed open.

What was happening in Ireland during those days? On March 9th, all St Patrick’s Day celebrations were cancelled. On March 12th, schools, colleges and childcare facilities were shut. The pubs closed down that weekend. Although the full lockdown was not yet in place, there was strong Government advice to work from home where possible.

Slovenly response

It is probable that Johnson’s slovenly response has ended up killing more than 20,000 people. If Dublin had followed London, we would certainly be talking about many hundreds of avoidable deaths in Ireland.

This may be the one saving grace of Brexit. That tragicomic show (still running of course) has made a mockery of the very thing it is supposed to revive: British greatness. Very few people outside England (and by no means everyone within it) can now take seriously the idea of Britain as a place one might look to for trust in expertise, for managerial competence or for political judgment.

Even the friendliest outsider can merely look at the state of the place and shake a head in disbelief and despair. It doesn’t matter how besotted an Anglophile you might be – no sane Irish scientist or civil servant or politician was going to look at Johnson, Cummings and their crew in mid-March and think: we’ll have what they’re having.

In this sense, the coronavirus has dramatised and speeded up a shift that most of us expected to be quiet and gradual. Brexit means that Ireland has little choice but to move out of the shadow – and the shelter – of its neighbour.

The relationship will remain very close, of course. Destinies, both historical and personal, are far too closely intertwined for any kind of surgical separation.

But a key part of that relationship – joint membership of, and close co-operation within, the EU – is vanishing. And the sad state of governance in London makes it impossible to ask “What is London doing?” without adding that perhaps we should do the opposite.

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