Comment by Sean Farrell
CORONAVIRUS CASES AS OF JULY 22 2020
Israel 15 April 12,762 (139) to 22 July 56,085 (430) ; Ireland 15 April 12,136 (444) to 22 July 25,819 (1754)
Who would want to be Taoiseach?
Micheal Martin for one, though just a month in he may be having second thoughts. He has already fired Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen, for a legacy DUI offence from 2016, has had to quell backbench resentment over appointments, has had to balance reopening the Economy against a possible resurgence in COVID-19 infections and has had to supervise the bedding down of Ireland’s unlikely Coalition Government. All this as the goodwill, consensus and solidarity generated in the public response to the virus has ebbed, the perennial issues on which last February’s election was fought have re-surfaced and the slow simmering Brexit is beginning to come to the boil. Moreover the terms of the coalition agreement, by obliging him to step aside after thirty months, deprive him of the props which normally sustain a head of government – control of the timetable and expectation of sufficient time to get the job done.
Parking for a moment the possibility that ‘events dear boy’ – Harold Macmillan’s phrase – may intervene to upset his now 29-month tenure, with the ever present threat that one of the his coalition partners may walk over policy or scandal, there is no doubt which should be Martin’s priority for his legacy – how he handles the Corona Virus, now a clear, immediate and present danger. We do not know how the crisis will evolve, but any perceived mishandling will be laid at Martin’s door. The Varadkar Government performance on the virus met with wide approval and restored his – and Fine Gael’s – fortunes after an abysmal election campaign, fought primarily on how the Government handled Brexit, an issue still in the abstract for most and not high on the electorate’s priorities.
And, ironically, the Brexit example has analogous relevance for Martin also. If he gets it right on the coronavirus, he won’t necessarily win any brownie points, but will then be judged on housing, the economy and whatever other issue surfaces in the meantime. The Cowen affair was one that happens in politics, the message has now got through to his aggrieved backbenchers that this time around the plum appointments are of necessity few, and Cowen’s replacement, Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary, has righted the major omission from Martin’s original team. The new government appears to be settling down and while most of the aspirations in the Programme for Government are likely to remain just that, given the pressure on resources, it will have at least a brief honeymoon to advance some of its priorities on Housing, the Environment and Health. A hard Brexit at year’s end remains a looming danger.
But first there is the coronavirus, which is not going, and will not go, away until a vaccine or some treatment magic bullet is both developed and readily available. Until then we are essentially at war, and, as during World War Two, we cannot ignore what is happening around us. And here currently Ireland is very much at a crossroads. As the economy was reopened, even cautiously, in recent weeks we have noticed, as elsewhere, that the number of new cases has begun to increase again. The numbers are still minute (350 since the beginning of July with 16 deaths), but so infectious is the virus that the rate of spread can rapidly become geometric. Right now the nightmare scenario is Israel. Consider the figures (apologies) heading this article for Ireland and Israel over four months; they are of reported cases with deaths in brackets; they make for chilling reading. Israel had been early into locking down and very successful in minimising the number of deaths. Then from mid-June the country began to relax.
Set against the unfolding disaster of the virus progress in the USA, Ireland has been relatively successful in combatting it. The country was in the first epicentre, Western Europe, fortunately after Italy and Spain, but clearly by the end of May had a sizeable number of deaths, over half in retirement homes, and a rising number of cases. Then the effects of the lockdown began to be felt fully, with gratifying results, apparent during June. The curve was virtually flattened totally and some experts and commentators suggested that the virus could be all but wiped out, taking a cue from New Zealand and some of the East Asian countries, were the lockdown to be continued. The dilemma was that every day of lockdown further damaged the economy, particularly in the seasonal tourist and hospitality sectors.
Ireland could have done better certainly, like the Scandinavians – Sweden apart – or Austria, but it could also have done horribly worse, as in Britain, for several reasons. Ireland is an EU member state with a small open society and economy. As an island it is heavily reliant on air and sea traffic for trade and contact; it has also a very much open border with Northern Ireland, which applies British coronavirus regulations. Ireland has a significant tourist industry with the largest numbers of tourists coming from Britain and the USA and has up to now applied a relaxed attitude to visitors at its borders. Moreover, high numbers of Irish residents holiday abroad with Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Britain and the USA the favourite destinations. The often-made comparison with New Zealand does not really apply.
As Ireland saw other European countries begin to re-open, without apparently precipitating any cataclysmic second wave (cases surging in places but without any surge in deaths – yet), domestic pressure told and a cautious re-opening began. Which is where we are at. Already there have been problems mirroring happenings elsewhere in Europe and the USA – little social distancing, particularly among the young, who account for many of the new cases – and some expressions of resentment over regulations to control what is widely perceived to be an ailment easily shrugged off by younger people who are impatient to see ‘normality’ restored. Again, the wartime analogy has relevance here: ‘normality’ is a long way off and indeed is likely to be superseded by a newer altered version as we learn to live with the disease
The first critical issue to arise for the new government has been over border controls. Should we close our borders totally? Should we impose strict quarantine on those arriving, instead of just an unenforceable and largely unverifiable ‘honour’ system of self-quarantine? What about visitors from and tourists arriving via Northern Ireland? How to cope with visitors, including some from the USA, who anecdotally thought the virus crisis exaggerated? And what about the two million or so who holiday abroad annually: how to treat them on return? The first attempts at constructing a list of ‘safe’ countries have been ridiculed; the list of fifteen includes Monaco, San Marino, Gibraltar and Greenland, not to mention Italy. Hardly an auspicious start. The Taoiseach will have to do better, but can he win either way?
Who’d be a Taoiseach?
Sean Farrell is a retired diplomat from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.