'Dangers of partition' or 'constitutional navel-gazing': Coronavirus crisis sparks Irish unity row

'Dangers of partition' or 'constitutional navel-gazing': Coronavirus crisis sparks Irish unity row

THE CORONAVIRUS crisis on the island of Ireland has sparked a row about Irish unity.

On Sunday, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald spoke to The Sunday Times where she voiced her frustration at the "astonishing" lack of a single health policy between the Republic of Ireland and the North, saying the situation "dwarfs Brexit in terms of reflecting the dangers of partition".

Ms McDonald was referring to the stark differences in the approach to containing and then delaying the spread of coronavirus on the island-- the Republic closed schools, nurseries, colleges and pubs on 13 and 14 March, while Northern Ireland followed guidelines from Westminster, which did not order the closures of schools until 18 March, or enforce full lockdown until 23 March.

She also criticised UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's initial 'herd immunity' approach, saying that Northern Ireland Joint First Minister, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, had to have "some pretty tough conversations" to get some consistency of approach between north and south, which she said exposes "how vulnerable we are when we have two jurisdictions, two systems on the island".

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the dangers of partition - Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald

Ms McDonald continued in her interview with The Sunday Times:

"When Brexit happened, people said this is an accelerant in terms of the unity debate, because it was so obvious with the danger to the border.

"We have an all-Ireland single policy for animal health but not for public health.

"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 leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, yesterday criticised Ms McDonald's comments, saying they amounted to "constitutional naval-gazing".

"I think the most important job for me as First Minister of Northern Ireland is to protect lives, to save lives, to make sure that our National Health Service, that great British institution, is not in any way overwhelmed by what is going on," Ms Foster said yesterday.

Ms Mcdonald's comments are 'regrettable' - DUP Leader Arlene Foster. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

"So I do think it is regrettable that other leaders are interested in constitutional navel-gazing at this time. I think it would be important for us to look back with hindsight when we're not in the middle of a pandemic."

The row comes after some headway was made previously in terms of the Republic and the North working together to fight the virus on the island, with both governments agreeing that the virus "does not respect borders".

Northern Ireland's Orange Order last week announced they had bought a large volume of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which they would be supplying to front line workers across both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and NI Health Minister Robin Swann had previously said he would welcome help from the Irish Army during the crisis "if we get to a stage where they can provide a service that we can't".

However, both Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster have expressed identical sentiments that people should not become complacent with lockdown measures, with Ms Foster saying "now is not the time for impatience to get the better of us", and Ms O'Neill stating breaching lockdown measures is "wrong, reckless and endangering lives".

Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster agree that following guidelines on social distancing are saving lives. (Getty)

Northern Ireland, with an estimated population of approximately 1.8 million, has so far recorded 3,374 confirmed cases of coronavirus with 309 hospital deaths, and an estimated 96 deaths in care homes.

The Republic, with an estimate population of 4.9 million, has so far recorded 19,648 confirmed cases and 1,102 deaths