Covid-19 and Government Formation

After a very difficult week I’m on the train back to Limerick and have time to write an update on what has been going on in the government formation talks and the Covid-19 crisis. I’ve been in Dublin mostly since the election. Initially this was to take part in the exploratory talks with other parties. That went on for two weeks and was a fruitful exchange of policies and ideas. I was primarily involved in discussions about energy, transport and reform of local government. But also on housing, planning, retrofitting, regenerating rural Ireland and development of Limerick and the other regional cities. By the end of last week, as this phase came to an end, we still had an open mind about what might come next. Our over-arching ask for entering government was that a programme would be put together so that Ireland would reduce its carbon emissions by 7% each year up to 2030. This is the level of action that the EU and UN have said is required to keep within the bounds of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature levels to between 1.5 and 2.0 degree celsius over the pre-industrial average. We said to all the parties that this would not be easy, but there were many ways in which it could be done. It was going to take time and a lot of research to figure out what exactly was the right way to go about achieving this reduction. For most of us in the Green Party – being new to national politics – this was an intense period, but we felt we were well able to deal with our counterparts across the political divide. All parties seemed to agree that if further talks did take place it would be Easter by the time there could be an agreement.

This week would likely have seen an escalation of talks, but on Monday doctors and epidemiologists began to get in touch expressing deep concern about how the Covid-19 crisis was being handled. What we learned was alarming. I had heard enough that I felt the schools and universities should have been closed on Tuesday, and that an almost complete lockdown of our country would be required in order to save many lives. By Wednesday it became clear that meaningful programme for government negotiations would have to be suspended. There was no way we could have gone into detailed discussions about long term issues, which we feel are very important, while people were being infected, families suffering and our hospitals overwhelmed. Following a somewhat solemn parliamentary party meeting, where all members spoke their minds, we agreed to call for the immediate suspension of talks and for the parties to work together and devote all their energies to dealing with the imminent crisis. I was surprised when I learned that the Taoiseach flew to the United States later on Wednesday. If it was clear to us what was happening, how was it not clear to the Taoiseach? We called for a National Government to quickly be put in place to handle the crisis. The devastation that is facing our society is so great that only a unified approach is appropriate. The media fixated on the idea of national government rather than our reasons for calling for it. Were we excluding ourselves from talks? Would we still speak with Fianna Fáil? Perhaps they didn’t quite get it either.

Leinster House was very quiet today. Myself and Thomas stayed to continue ironing out the detail of what would be required if we do find ourselves in talks for programme for government next week. Although Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil eventually agreed to suspend talks yesterday, Fianna Fáil are now saying they want them to resume next week. It is difficult to understand this decision. By the end of next week there will certainly be hundreds of positive cases of Covid-19. Many people, especially lower paid workers in the service industry, will be laid off with no income stream. Our hospitals and our public services will be straining under the burden of the crisis. How can negotiations take place in this environment? We have a moral duty to protect our most vulnerable and our society, and hastily advancing programme for government negotiations and changing cabinet roles is certainly not the way to do it.

I’m arriving back, on an almost empty train, to a Limerick that no doubt looks the same as the city I left on Tuesday morning last. But life here will change in the coming weeks. We may see friends and loved ones stricken with the virus. Many people will lose their jobs. Businesses will be brought to the brink, and beyond. And when the virus does pass through, it will take time and hard work to get ourselves back to where we were. For now, let’s look after each other, heed the advice of public health officials, and support those who are on the front line and those who are being impacted by the crisis. If I can help please do get in touch.