Peter Robinson: The noxious poison of the two Ps, pandemic and protocol, has dominated 2021

It has been a year dominated here by the two Ps — the pandemic and the protocol.

By Peter Robinson
Friday, 24th December 2021, 5:53 am
Updated Friday, 24th December 2021, 5:56 am
The prime minister Boris Johnson continues to turn prevarication and promise-breaking into an art form
The prime minister Boris Johnson continues to turn prevarication and promise-breaking into an art form

For most of us our lives have not just been impacted by the pandemic they have been fundamentally transformed and even perhaps irreversibly remodelled.

Only a few feckless social media nutters think that Covid is not a significant problem. The sane world recognises the death, illness, grief, and anguish that has followed it through its many variants.

Where the bulk of humanity is at odds, is not just how we best treat it and guard against it, but the extent of the restrictions that should be imposed.

On one side of this debate is the view that society must take every step to safeguard its citizens and if that means lockdowns, circuit-breakers, banning access to services and facilities unless vaccinated, carrying a Covid passport, shorter commercial opening hours, masks, social distancing, home working etc. then so be it.

In the other corner is the assertion that individual freedoms are precious and must be protected, state control should be opposed, and governments often use crises to impose measures which they entrench afterwards.

There are, naturally, as many variants of these positions as there are of the virus itself and the sensible approach seems to lie somewhere in the wide gap between these two positions.

Many people have concerns about what they see as the overreach of government. For me I distinguish between a government jumping at the opportunity to repress its citizens and the good-faith actions of those who want to face the challenge of safeguarding people when there is a public health threat of the scale we are facing.

I accept confusing communications and ever-changing restrictions have not helped.

About a year ago, in my column, I proffered the view that the pandemic would be with us for a very long time, and we would have to work out how we live with it. I still believe that, but here’s the rub.

If we want to have an open and functioning society then we must accept that our behaviour during the crisis is regulated to provide safety for ourselves and others. Yet we cannot simply police ourselves out of the pandemic, government must convince public opinion of the road it wants us to travel.

There can be no such thing as absolute freedom of the individual. For the greater good and smooth order of society we accept limitations on our freedoms. We cannot be free to drive on whichever side of the road we want. We have thousands of laws to control our behaviour and our interaction with others. Chaos would result if it were not so.

Ironically among those who shout most that their freedoms should not be curbed you will find those who are content to tell others how they should, or should not, live their lives. You cannot have it both ways.

Yet, we can already see that rights we have been accustomed to are being eroded — albeit, on the face of it, for the public good. Monitoring individuals as they live their lives will grow exponentially in the months ahead. Concerns exist about how safe health data will be if other agencies and companies are given access to it for enforcement and other purposes.

There is a growing clamour for more expansive criminal punishments and worryingly a tendency to take decisions without proper and thorough parliamentary scrutiny. Our Right to meet and have association with others has been restricted and who knows what limitations will come next.

The “do everything to stop the spread” argument might at first seem sensible and attractive, but some suspect we will only replace the virus casualties with those who suffer loss from the diversion of health services away from other illnesses and we will have to cope with a significant increase of people with mental illnesses and the additional effect of unemployment and deprivation as a result of a collapsed economy which usually hits marginalised communities the most.

The answer must lie with a steady well-argued and researched way forward that balances a temporary curb on our liberty with essential and scientifically proven means of limiting the spread of the virus in order to allow life to operate as close to normal as possible.

The priority is to be able to justify each step and provide time for businesses to plan ahead. It is essential, if government restricts companies and individuals from earning, that it compensates them to the extent that it has constrained them from working.

For its part the protocol has continued to seep into Northern Ireland’s body politic while radically upsetting our economic well-being.

The prime minister continues to turn prevarication and promise-breaking into an art form. Publishing a Command Paper outlining what the government believes must be done and then dithering rather that delivering demonstrates that unionists cannot allow him to control the protocol agenda.

The erosion of Northern Ireland’s integrity within the Union will gather pace in the coming year as will the displacement of economic activity from an East-West to a North-South axis unless unionists act.

Delay is not the friend of unionism and unless rock solid commitments of how the protocol is to be dealt with exist the leadership of unionism cannot feast at the table set to celebrate their destruction.

The assembly places unionist ministers as part of the apparatus of this destructive protocol if they fulfil what is legally required of them. Remaining in the executive with this protocol intact is untenable.

Following the logical course in these circumstances may not be the most popular option, but safeguarding the Union is a call of duty for any and every unionist and goes beyond short-term party or personal popularity.

I cannot help but wonder how much longer the noxious poison of the two Ps will dominate our discourse and lives.

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