SG News (Straits Times)

Ireland’s calm before the surge

By April 11, 2020 No Comments

About this time four weeks ago, Ireland’s caretaker Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was a political lame duck.

He was the medical doctor turned politician whose bedside manner deserted him during a bruising general election campaign in which his party came in a miserable third.

All through the sodden January-February campaign, the public anger was palpable. Younger voters made it clear they wanted “change” and this proved life-threatening for Mr Varadkar’s minority administration which delivered unprecedented economic growth but presided over an acute housing shortage.

He and his ministers made it clear that they wanted to move to the opposition benches to lick their wounds, and urged the once-toxic Sinn Fein – which took 25 per cent of the vote – to form a government.

Then came the Covid-19 wave.

Ireland is in the calm-before-the-surge phase.

What the rest of the world knows as World War II was officially known in neutral Ireland as “The Emergency”. It is a word used in times of crisis here – the last time to pass laws to deal with the terror campaign waged by the Provisional IRA. Covid-19 is the new Emergency.

The country has been in this phase for more than two weeks, and the longer it goes on, the more hope grows we may have escaped the worst. Ninety-three per cent of more than 40,000 who presented have tested negative for Covid-19.

At the time of writing, the total number of confirmed cases is 1,329 with seven deaths and a further 172 confirmed cases in Northern Ireland.

Ireland, with its population of five million, is in “shutdown”, while Northern Ireland governed out of London is finally in “lockdown” after weeks of unhelpful prevarication by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The pubs and restaurants of Belfast were still open for business, while 160km down the motorway in Dublin, its famous pubs have been shuttered up for two weeks. The once bustling Grafton Street and its shops have been deserted for as long.

Before the shutdown was announced on the night of St Patrick’s Day, on March 17, pub owners had been asked to keep only a minimum number of people on their premises. But when a social media video emerged of a crowded public house in Dublin’s Temple Bar, with revellers belting out popular ballads, there was widespread revulsion.

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    CASES

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Health Minister Simon Harris described the video as an “insult” to the efforts of healthcare workers. “Not far from here nurses and doctors are working to prepare for the impact of a global pandemic. Everyone is working 24/7,” he wrote.

Shutdown has involved working from home for Dublin’s tens of thousands of tech workers in Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Schools, colleges, creches and all non-essential shops have closed, the elderly have been instructed to stay behind closed doors and the public urged to maintain social distancing of 2m apart. World-famous landmarks such as Bunratty Castle and the Cliffs of Moher lay empty but public parks and beaches remain open.

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Ireland suffered the most severe recession in Europe after the 2008 financial crash. The government implemented an austerity programme which has left the public service – nurses, doctors and police – threadbare. The Covid-19 shutdown has come as a further shock and a huge cost to the economy. Banks are seeing 7,000 calls a day from home owners seeking the three-month “mortgage holiday” on offer.

Tourism, which is so important to the island, no longer exists. Having learnt the lessons of being too compliant and austere 12 years ago, the widely respected caretaker Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has announced a €4 billion (S$6.3 billion) stimulus package to subsidise companies, keeping vulnerable hospitality and small business employees on the payroll.

The Irish public are renowned for their cynicism towards the political class. To many people, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, the clinician, has been disappointing, with his wooden and socially awkward ways. Suddenly, in a mood of national anxiety, the doctor had regained his bedside manner.

Tourism, which is so important to the island, no longer exists. Having learnt the lessons of being too compliant and austere 12 years ago, the widely respected caretaker Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has announced a €4 billion (S$6.3 billion) stimulus package to subsidise companies, keeping vulnerable hospitality and small business employees on the payroll.

Croke Park – one of Europe’s largest stadiums – and the home of GAA Gaelic football and hurling, has been transformed into a mass testing centre. So far, the creaking publicly owned Irish healthcare system has been coping well with the Emergency called on the evening of St Patrick’s Day.

It had been “a St Patrick’s Day like no other”, Mr Varadkar said in a televised address. “In years to come, let them say of us: When things were at their worst, we were at our best,” he implored.

Journalist Miriam Lord wrote in The Irish Times: “Some listeners said afterwards that this line – it came very early in Mr Varadkar’s 12-minute address – was when they first began welling up.

“It took a while longer for others, but by the end, a lot of us were feeling emotional. It’s been a difficult few weeks. The setting was different. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) wasn’t sitting in his office behind a big wooden desk with the trappings of political success around him.

“Instead, he stood at a lectern in the white-walled corridor outside it, framed by the Irish and the EU flags. Neutral ground for a commendably non-political speech. He didn’t sweeten the pill.”

 

Mr Varadkar then summoned his inner Churchill: “This is the calm before the storm. Before the surge. And when it comes – and it will come – never will so many ask so much of so few.”

The Irish public are renowned for their cynicism towards the political class. To many people, Mr Varadkar, the clinician, has been disappointing, with his wooden and socially awkward ways. Suddenly, in a mood of national anxiety, the doctor had regained his bedside manner.

As the three major political parties vie to form a government, some would wager a long shot on another general election post-Covid-19 and the good doctor to take back many of the seats his party lost on Feb 8.

• Stephen Rae is the former group chief editor of Ireland’s largest media company, INM. He is now a media investor and adviser and the owner of reputation agency, KOBN.ie

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