Just before the crisis of COVID-19 hit Ireland, we had been preparing for (and many of us complaining about) a general election to form the next Dáil Éireann.
Many people were unimpressed with the poor state of affairs in different parts of society, and wanted things to change. Housing, homelessness, healthcare, direct provision, and more all needed to be dealt with urgently. Although the feeling on the ground was that the Fine Gael minority government hadn’t acted quickly or sufficiently enough, what voters considered an allowable timeline to implement changes could never be rationally defined.
Still, the desire for some sort of pro-active management of those issues was clear – a sentiment that opposition parties had been ready to use in their messaging and campaigns. Those who supported the government could have noted performance during an apparent national crisis over Brexit, and although it seemingly didn’t resonate in opinion polls or during door-to-door canvassing, the performance of both Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar during the difficult UK/Ireland/EU negotiations was arguably commendable. It seemed that those who’d vote for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil would still vote for them and claim their reasons; be they based on logic, tradition, or personal priority. However, those less inclined to voting for them, or less inclined to vote at all, desired change strongly enough to answer the call for Sinn Féin, the Greens, the Social Democrats, and others to take either new or renewed seats in Leinster House.
With the election results showing a clear surge in support for Sinn Féin, and relative progress made for those in the Social Democrats, the Greens, and Labour, there was fresh hope for a new left or centre-left Dáil, although it was not a done deal. Only if the vast majority of left-leaning TDs agreed on a rainbow coalition could the two big parties be excluded from power, but that did not become a tangible option quickly enough. Instead, talks of a renewed deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil reached our airwaves and newspaper shelves, leaving new supporters of Sinn Féin and the smaller parties wondering why they bothered to vote in the first place.
New Emergency, Same Emergency
When the inevitable happened in Ireland and numbers of those showing symptoms for COVID-19 began to rise, the lockdown (in all but name) was only a matter of time. It was now a time for the country to come together as one community to reduce the impact of the pandemic here, and our politicians mostly called truce. TDs from one party would retweet important information and pleas to self-isolate from TDs or councillors of another. All of them would appear to support Health Minister Simon Harris in his massive efforts to support both the HSE and the nation, regardless of his political affiliation. Nothing else mattered other than preparing for the worst case scenario, and every TD knew this. While reports on the concept of a national unity government for the new Dáil hinted that it was an unlikely option, the actions of the new generation of TDs suggested otherwise.
Of course, the issues that concerned voters remained. As hotels and other places of accomodation emptied out of tourists, the homeless were moved off the streets and into temporary shelter, a move that would undoubtedly end once restrictions were lifted. A struggling healthcare system was boosted almost overnight with the announcement that private hospitals would cooperate with public ones during the crisis, adding beds and staff to the front line. Both temporary and quick releases of pressure, but neither of which permanent. The issue of standards of living in direct provision centres were still a serious concern to some politicians, however, the only solution suggested by the Department of Justice to date is to work with the HSE in establishing an “off-site self-isolation facility” – in other words, another direct provision centre, just for suspected COVID-19 patients. Now, more than ever, those who advocate for such vulnerable groups need to shout louder, whether they are within Leinster House or outside it.
Return of the ‘Meitheal’
Despite the remaining inequalities in our society, only some of which have been tackled during the lockdown, there is still a strong cause for appreciating how we as a nation have come together. From small gestures like checking in on neighbours, or stepping off the pavement and onto the road to give ample space to another pedestrian, to the tens of thousands signing up to volunteer in the community or to rejoin the health services, there has not been a nationwide formation of a meitheal in living memory. We are more conscious of those workers which many of us have taken for granted in the past, from hospital cleaners to lorry drivers, and from supermarket staff to bus drivers. Even take-away delivery drivers! We have encouraged each other to stay at home, and a good few of us have managed to keep us entertained, whether through pub quizzes on Zoom to dance videos on TikTok. We’ve called our parents, our grannies, our siblings, our friends, and our neighbours. We’ve slowed down, and as a result, thought of people normally outside our sphere of consideration. Most of us are already based in some form of a community, but lately, we’ve welcomed that community spirit back into our homes.
We’re not out of the woods yet, and God knows our country and its political leaders have a long way to go to make improvements, but this has proven to us that we can be our own leaders, our own influencers, and our own activists. It shouldn’t have taken a global pandemic to make many of us realise it, but if we can hold onto that lesson after all this, maybe some good will come out of it.