Edwin Poots’s attempt to paint the resurgence of Covid as the responsibility of the Catholic community is a particularly vile example of Stormont politicians trying to inject their sectarian poison in the midst of a crisis. The comments weren’t just a political attack on Sinn Féin leaders’ double standards on the Bobby Storey funeral – his comments went much further, suggesting ordinary Catholics have broadly flouted the rules while Protestants have abided by them.
Poots’s comments are really part of a ‘standard operating procedure’ for the Orange and Green politicians on the hill. When under pressure, they seek to distract attention by whipping up ‘us versus them’ sectarianism. In reality, there’s a lot of frustration at the approach of Stormont in dealing with the virus, the sudden U-turns and confused public health messaging as the politicians prioritise private profit over public health. But the vast majority of people have followed the regulations and, indeed, recent opinion polls showed that 51% of people actually think they need to be tightened.
However, there is an ‘us and them’ in this crisis. The main dividing line when it comes to cases of Covid-19 is not which side of the sectarian divide you come from, but which side of the class divide. As one data analyst tweeted, only one of Northern Ireland’s 40 least deprived postcode areas has over 400 weekly cases per 100,000 people, yet three-quarters of the 40 most deprived areas do. This, of course, is also a feature outside of Northern Ireland, The Lancet, the oldest and most prominent medical journal, commented earlier this month that the virus disproportionately affects those with underlying conditions “clustering within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies”.
Poots’s comments reflect serious fractures in the Northern Ireland Executive, divided on Brexit, legacy issues and more. These tensions are again expressing themselves around the handling of the pandemic, despite promises of a ‘united front’. Despite the fanfare about a ‘new decade, new approach’ when the Executive was restored in January, Stormont will be characterised by even more instability and clashes in the coming period. There are clearly also divisions within the DUP over Brexit, dealing with the virus and other issues, which could see Arlene Foster’s leadership challenged in the near future.
Even in the face of a serious crisis, the Orange and Green politicians are incapable of putting sectarianism aside, as this is what they rely on to maintain their base of support. Yet during this pandemic, we have seen important united actions by workers, working-class communities and young people – to support our NHS and key workers, to fight for proper health and safety measures at work, and to defeat exam results algorithms which discriminated against working-class students. These common struggles point a way out of the sectarian quagmire that passes for politics in Northern Ireland. What is needed is the building of a socialist alternative that can challenge both Orange and Green Tories and find democratic solutions to the issues that divide our communities, based on solidarity and mutual respect.