Sinn Fein president: The need for an all-island approach to combating Covid-19 is basic common sense

Letter to the editorLetter to the editor
Letter to the editor
The health and well-being of all who inhabit this island should be the number one concern for any elected representative at this time.

Our efforts to contain and beat the Covid-19 virus necessitate an all-island effort from all politicians, healthcare professionals and communities.

New Zealand’s notable success in reducing virus transmissions serves to highlight the advantage islands can have in this fight.

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The island of Ireland has communities of different beliefs and backgrounds. But fighting a pandemic head-on, we are one collective population unit in this together.

People might be tired of hearing it or even consider it a cliché, but the fact is this virus does not respect borders. Nor does it recognise political differences.

It was therefore disappointing to read the comments of Reg Empey in the Belfast News Letter accusing me of turning the crisis into an ‘orange versus green body count’ and dismissing discussion on Irish unity as ‘crazy talk.’

(His article can be read here: ‘This health crisis has shown that Sinn Fein always needs a grievance to keep its agitation going’)

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Such comments are designed to provoke and divide — reckless at any time, but in particular when we must show a united front to save lives.

It is no secret that I am an Irish republican. I am the President of Sinn Féin. I want a United Ireland. That much is obvious.

There is no shame in that, nor is there any shame in unionists disagreeing with that point of view either.

Irish unity is a perfectly legitimate aspiration. The Good Friday Agreement, designed to give parity of esteem to both the British and Irish identities and to our political aspirations, clearly states as much.

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There is no faux outrage when unionists talk about valuing their British identity or their hopes of maintaining the union with Britain. Nor should there be. It is every bit as legitimate as my desire for Irish unity.

While Empey dismissing republican aspirations is insulting, dismissing the need for an all-island approach to combating Covid-19 is downright reckless.

The need to maximise our advantage as an island is basic common sense.

The notion that containment measures one side of the border ought to be in harmony with those two miles down the road on the other side is basic common sense.

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The idea that our exit strategies from Covid-19 restrictions — underpinned by better testing and contact tracing — should be the same north and south is basic common sense.

In times past, such as the Foot And Mouth Disease outbreak in 2001, our communities put differences to one side to protect livestock.

If we can do that for livestock, we sure as hell can do it to save the lives of our loved ones.

This isn’t an easy situation for anyone and naturally there will be disagreements along the way. But we should all be united by the one goal of keeping our communities safe.

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That is why my Sinn Féin colleague, Joint Head of Government Michelle O’Neill, argued strongly to close schools in the north at the onset of this crisis.

This was not an attempt to create a green v orange wedge — or of following Dublin’s way rather than London’s way. It was to keep our children - and by extension, you — infection free. 

The initial response of the British government has been exposed as being the wrong one. We were right to call that as we saw it — Westminster’s change in tack confirmed as much.

But this current crisis does not mean we cannot continue to talk about a better Ireland where everyone is valued, respected and treated with equality either.

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The support for Irish unity is growing by the day. It cannot be dismissed.

Republicans are realists and know partition cannot be wished away. We know that constitutional change will come about when the majority of people on this island want it, in line with the Good Friday Agreement.

That is why we are talking about Irish unity and want unionists to get involved in that conversation. We don’t expect them to become advocates of Irish unity overnight. But unionists can play a key role in shaping a better society.

Trying to suppress that conversation will fail. It is already under way and indeed some within unionism are already taking part.

I invite Reg and others to join that constructive dialogue on the future for us and our children and play his part too.

Mary Lou McDonald TD, Sinn Fein president