Sam McBride: What is happening at Stormont over coronavirus restrictions is inept, but also baffling

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There is distrust and incompetence within the Executive which is undermining its attempt to tackle coronavirus, but there is also something happening within the DUP which is bafflingly incoherent.

Six days ago, Arlene Foster got to her feet in the Assembly and proposed the tough new restrictions which came into effect at the weekend.

The First Minister firmly associated herself with the measures, which she said were “essential actions” because “more steps are now urgently needed” and said that after careful consideration “we have concluded that we must put the following measures in place”.

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There was no hint this was under duress. Instead, the DUP leader repeatedly associated herself with the measures, saying “We believe that the above restrictions should apply for four weeks” and “the Executive have taken this decision because it is necessary”.

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are presiding over a dysfunctional ExecutiveArlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are presiding over a dysfunctional Executive
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are presiding over a dysfunctional Executive

Two days later at a press conference on the restrictions, Mrs Foster appeared confident and relaxed – again personally telling the public that these measures were necessary.

Yet the following day one of Mrs Foster’s ministers, Edwin Poots, went on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme to criticse the restrictions, saying that he had “grave reservations” about them and some Executive ministers “don’t seem to care” about the resultant economic damage.

But Mr Poots himself did not vote against the proposal at the Executive (he did speak against the restriction on funerals), much less resign his position in opposition to the decision.

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The DUP immediately made a series of claims which hardly stand up to logical scrutiny. Mr Poots was speaking in line with Mrs Foster’s views, the party said – even though Mrs Foster jointly tabled the proposal to introduce the restrictions and did not wield the DUP veto to stop them.
The party claimed to have “hollowed out” the restrictions, despite Mr Poots’ evident belief that there should have been far more ‘hollowing’.

And, most implausibly, the party claimed that it had not opposed the restrictions in order to protect working relationships in the Executive – essentially a suggestion that the DUP valued a cosier relationship with Sinn Féin over standing up for what it believed in an area with such far-reaching consequences.

As it happened, that claim was implicitly demolished by Mr Poots himself when on Friday afternoon he caused a rupture in Executive relationships by claiming on that the surge in covid cases was largely in nationalist areas.

Hours after Mr Poots’ comments, a DUP source told me that they were part of a wider dissatisfaction with Mrs Foster’s leadership, although there is no sign of any direct challenge to her position.

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That evening things got worse for the Executive. Even though the restrictions were agreed on Tuesday night, Sinn Fein minister Caral Ni Chuilin left it so late to tell sporting bodies that fans were banned from grounds that spectators were already inside grounds and the PSNI agreed that removing them would have endangered public safety. Mrs Foster took to Twitter to say that Ms Ni Chuilin was wrong and what she had said was “preposterous”.

But the nadir had not yet been reached. Although Stormont had told the public that the restrictions would be in place from 6pm on Friday – and the police were warning the public to obey the new law, the new law did not yet exist.

In what two Stormont sources said was a row between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the legislation was not agreed until 10.30pm that night and was first spotted online at 3.30am the following morning. The Kafkaesque situation meant that the Executive was purporting to legally ban things without even allowing the public to see the law which set out what apparently had been banned.

Stormont Castle did not explain or apologise for the situation. In fact, it did not even respond to my questions around it.

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Facing into what could be a terrible winter, the Executive is rancorous and divided, and laden with basic incompetence.

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Alistair Bushe