The Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has spoken out about the danger of having two jurisdictions in Ireland in the current health crisis, saying it is wrong to have an all-island approach to animal care, but not human healthcare.
Ms McDonald warned that the coronavirus “dwarfs Brexit in terms of reflecting the danger of partition”.
“We have an all-Ireland single policy for animal health but not for public health,” she said.
“Everything we do to keep people safe has to be on the understanding we are a single population on a small island and have to look after each other.”
The Sinn Féin President was speaking out as concern grows over the effect of the border on tackling the virus.
In the 26 Counties, there are elevated and rapidly escalating numbers of infections in every border county, particularly in Cavan, which has already seen the virus wreak havoc in healthcare and meat production facilities.
Hospital-based deaths in the North are an estimated 50% higher than in the South, although statistics in the Six Counties remain unreliable and are subjected to routine revision. Britain’s own statistics authority has warned the numbers being issued by the Stormont Department of Heath contain “gaps” and “losses”.
The main danger to the public is thought to be the different forms of lockdown which exist on both sides of the border. In particular, strict regulations on the movement of citizens in the 26 Counties do not apply to those coming from the North. This has led to a police union to call for an all-island approach to regulation.
“There is two jurisdictions on this island, but there is one virus. And this virus it knows no boundaries - so I think there is a need for a kind of an all-island approach,” said AGSI president Cormac Moylan.
Visitors from the North currently operate under different rules to those who are resident in the South, who have been ordered to remain within a 2km radius. That situation has been described as “unacceptable” by politicians in border counties.
In 2001, during an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease, a disease of sheep and cattle, unionist leaders agreed a “Fortress Ireland” approach to protect livestock across Ireland. This included coordinated all-Ireland polices and actions as well as checks at ports of entry and exit.
However, in this current pandemic, unionist ministers have insisted on following widely discredited and dangerous policies set in London, which has seen the essential testing and tracing of infected patients disregarded. Moreover, to score a perceived political point for unionism, they recently called for the British Army to be reintroduced, even though they were clearly not required.
Ms McDonald said the coronavirus was another catalyst for a debate on Irish unity, coming on top of Brexit. She said it highlighted the problem of having two separate health systems on the island of Ireland.
“Yet again, we see how vulnerable we are when we have two jurisdictions, two systems, on the island,” she said. “Viruses don’t respect borders. This is not politics, it’s biology and public health. For the purposes of keeping people safe and alive, there has to be an all-Ireland approach.”
She again criticised British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s policy of herd immunity, which she said had made it very difficult for the Stormont administration in Belfast to align their policies with Dublin. Britain is now the fourth most infected nation in the world, behind Belgium, Spain and Italy.
“I think the fact that Boris Johnson and the British government opted early on for the herd immunity approach meant that Michelle O’Neill [Sinn Féin’s leader in the North] had to have some pretty tough conversations to get the northern system in tandem with what was happening in the South.”
Both unionists and Fine Gael accused Sinn Féin of politicising the situation. The North’s Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride and Fine Gael business minister Heather Humphreys have separately said they believe that the border is not a factor in the transmission of the disease, although neither advanced any evidence for the claim.
Ms McDonald said her party had always called for a single health strategy, and called for a unified strategy as Ireland seeks to emerge from the lockdown phase. On Friday, the Dublin government outlined plans for a phased reopening of business and social activity continuing until August, without any reference to the Six Counties.
“We need a single harmonised regime across the island to keep people safe and ensure compliance with necessary measures and to ensure this virus does not sweep through our population,” Ms McDonald said.
“We have consistently made the point that to protect the population on this island, that for public health purposes - we are a small population living on a small island.”
She said that when Brexit was being debated, “people may not have considered the issue of the border and suddenly the penny dropped that decisions being taken in London were going to have huge ramifications for the Irish economy.
“I have made the point that if Brexit caused concern then certainly a public health emergency is of greater concern, when you have someone in Number 10 Downing Street who was pursuing a reckless and dangerous policy, and then there was concern that recklessness would be replicated in the north eastern part of Ireland. No responsible person would countenance that.
“We need a single harmonised regime across the island to keep people safe and ensure compliance with necessary measures and to ensure this virus does not sweep through our population.”