Irish Examiner View: Virus bigger than political differences

Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin at a Leader's Debate
Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin at a Leader's Debate

There are times when it takes one plague to overcome another. That may be overstating matters, in the grander scheme of things, but it holds true, at least, for the formation of a government here. Growing concerns over the coronavirus have led to a change of heart in Fine Gael about going into coalition with Fianna Fáil.

That, effectively, means an end to Civil War politics, a form of hostile engagement that has plagued the country for generations.

Up to now, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar had sought to keep his party’s old rivals in a sort of political quarantine. He has now recommended to his parliamentary party that they enter into formal negotiations with Fianna Fáil, on a programme for government.

That’s easier said than done, as there is widespread opposition in both parties to such an arrangement and there are also logistical challenges.

It could take a week or so for that to happen, because Mr Varadkar flew to Washington yesterday for the traditional St Patrick’s Day presentation of a bowl of shamrock to the US president at the White House.

No sooner will he return home at the weekend, than the deputy leader, Simon Coveney, will travel to New York for the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade. This means that Fine Gael’s parliamentary party won’t meet to formally approve talks with Fianna Fáil until Wednesday, March 18, at the earliest.

But even if both parties can come to some arrangement, they will need the support of the Green Party to form any kind of stable and lasting government. That’s a much harder ask, as the Greens know, only too well, the downside of coalition government.

In June 2007, Green Party delegates to a special conference voted by a huge majority to go into government with Fianna Fáil, which was led by Bertie Ahern. At the following election, they lost every one of their seats.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a grand coalition has been firmly put in motion by the Taoiseach. Writing to his parliamentary colleagues, he justified his U-turn by explaining that “the public health emergency posed by Covid-19 marks a dramatic change in context”.

That may well be so, because, if the situation gets much worse and threatens social stability, coping with the consequences will demand mutual co-operation. That means agreeing a programme to contain the spread of the disease.

Historically, isolation and quarantine are necessary to deal with epidemics, but only if enacted early enough. Limiting exposure to disease is still among the best ways to limit its spread.

That requires more considered, effective communication by the Government and the HSE to the public at large. While it may be necessary to protect the confidentiality of individuals who have the virus, citizens have not only a right, but a need, to know what is happening in their midst.

A facility being put in place for medical staff on College Road in Cork, is an example. The concerns of elderly local residents have been heightened by lack of communication. It should not be too difficult to give them the reassurances they need. Ignorance promotes fear and fear promotes panic.

There is no need for either.

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