Grace Donnellan examines the impact of the pandemic on the quest for a United Ireland.
With a total of 37,216 Covid-19 cases reported as of the 29th of October, Northern Ireland has certainly not escaped the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This figure is particularly striking as the six counties only have a population of less than 1.9 million. In comparison, the Republic, which has a population of more than 4.9 million, has recorded 59,434 cases. Currently, a number of hospitals in the North have stated that they are running “beyond capacity”, a worrying trend this early into the winter. The situation in Northern Ireland has led to a significant rise in cases in border counties and caused many to call for an all-island response to the pandemic. “Disease knows no border”; Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, pointedly said in March. Certainly, the pandemic has revealed how arbitrary and harmful a border on such a small island can be.
Numerous problems regarding cooperation between the North and South of the island appeared in the earlier days of the pandemic, with Arlene Foster stating that she heard of the Republic’s first lockdown through the media. Divergent responses to the situation emerged as the North found itself entangled in the UK’s initial haphazard approach. In April a memorandum of understanding, acknowledging a “compelling case for strong cooperation, including information-sharing and, where appropriate, a common approach”, was agreed upon between the two parties.
However, as the situation on both sides of the border has deteriorated, it seems that this approach has gone out the window. Despite weeks of rising cases, the Executive only enforced a lockdown in Northern Ireland in the middle of October. A day later, the Irish Government announced a Level 4 lockdown in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal. A further nationwide Level 5 lockdown was imposed in the Republic on the 21st of October. This has led to some serious inconsistencies across the island of Ireland. Children in the North were given an extended half-term under these measures, impacting over 2000 children who live in the Republic but attend school across the border. Currently, an individual living in Middletown, County Armagh can visit a shop or go to the gym, whereas only 5km away in Tyholland, County Monaghan both these things are prohibited. It seems hard to argue that an all-island response would not make the most sense.
The NHS has often been pointed to as a reason why many would be hesitant to leave the Union. However, it is currently being pushed to its limits and is worryingly close to being unable to cope with the health crisis. Stormont’s Health Minister denied reports that they had asked the hospitals in the Republic or the HSE to treat Covid-19 patients from the North. However, with ICU beds currently at 103% capacity, Stormont cannot rule out the possibility of having to ask for the HSE’s assistance.
The crisis has also demonstrated how far removed the MPs of Westminster are from life in Northern Ireland. Limited financial support has been offered to the Executive. This may be why they did not enter a lockdown as strict as that of the Republic. If Manchester cannot even secure the funding they need, what hope is there for the North? With the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland experiencing its highest quarterly rise since 2012, and the Pandemic Unemployment Payment lower than that being granted to many in the Republic, people may be starting to think twice about whether they would be better off in a United Ireland.
A February poll found that 45.4% of those surveyed in Northern Ireland, and 73.1% in the Republic, would vote for a United Ireland. A generation born after the Good Friday Agreement was signed now has the ability to vote in the North. They are unfamiliar with life during the Troubles and were not exposed to the violence and death that plagued Northern Ireland for decades. For this generation the case for a United Ireland is less emotive, instead, it is one focused on practicalities. While Taoiseach Micháel Martin announced last week that a Border Poll is not on the government’s agenda in the next five years, he reaffirmed his party’s commitment to a United Ireland. A rise for support in Sinn Féin in the Republic also demonstrates that the idea of one nation is not that of fantasy. An Ireland that prioritises the health and wellbeing of its citizens is more important than one that is united, however, it seems the most likely way to achieve the first is through the second.