MEP Chris McManus.
Opinion: Ireland’s newest MEP, Chris MacManus (Sinn Féin) believes this is not a time for recriminations as we cannot change the past, but we can shape the future
All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. – WB Yeats
Do Yeats’ words hold sway in these times? There’s no doubting that what we have witnessed is ‘terrible’ beyond measure. There has been a staggering loss of life on our island due to Covid-19, and family and friends who have lost love ones have had to mourn in an untypically distanced manner.
I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it must be for these people, and my sincerest sympathies go out to each and every one of them.
We also know for sure that things have ‘changed utterly’. These passing weeks will define how we live now and for decades to come.
Society will see monumental change. Will it be for better or worse? Is there room for Yeats’ ‘beauty’ in our considerations?
These are uncertain days, days that have turned into weeks, and weeks that may turn into months. However, we must be certain of one thing and that is, as a society both locally, nationally, and globally, we must learn from this crisis.
We must learn that when we work together, show solidarity with each other, and place the resources of the state for the common good, then we have the ability to forge a better society.
The current Covid-19 crisis has required Fine Gael – an instinctively right-wing party – to implement emergency policies as a caretaker government that can only be described as left-wing in nature.
We will see, at least in the short-term, a single-tier healthcare system where patients receive care based on need, not wealth; where people can no longer be evicted into homelessness; where rent freezes are all of a sudden constitutional; where the state is playing a substantial role in funding childcare; and social-protection benefits have been increased.
My party, Sinn Féin, saw a groundswell of support based on these policies in the recent election. However, no one could have foreseen the exceptional circumstances under which such policies would come to be implemented, nor the irony that they’d be brought in by a caretaker government who spent the election campaign dismissing them.
This is not a time for recriminations, as we cannot change the past. But we can shape the future. Firstly, we must acknowledge the effect that years of austerity has had on the role of the state in our economy and society.
The closure and downgrading of hospitals, such as Roscommon or Monaghan, as well as a litany of other regional health facilities, have come into sharp focus.
Not only in health, where there has been a failure to increase capacity, but also in housing, where many suffer costly, unsuitable and overcrowded accommodation.
Witness the swagger of some within the banking community, who continue to profiteer off the backs of hurting citizens. It seems that eaten bread is soon forgotten.
Behold the incredulous spectacle that was the British border across Ireland over the last weeks: two different sets of advice from our media; two different health systems; two different lockdown dates; two different compensation payments for cross-border workers, and no doubt two different dates for when restrictions are finally lifted.
The latter of these quandaries is perhaps the most dangerous.
First Brexit and now the coronavirus have exposed the damaging nature of partition. It is a fault-line that runs through our society and its dangers will continue to be exposed in times of crisis. Ignoring it is no longer tenable. Unity is something needed now more than ever.
Regardless of the current crisis, and as seen at the last election, Irish society is seeking change. Post-pandemic, that thirst for change will only grow.
People will rightly ask questions about our health service, our housing needs, and the quality of our environment.
Quality-of-life issues such as working more from home, commuting less, and seeing more of our children, must be at the forefront of many minds, as is the way many of us have come to value the importance of the role of our older citizens in our communities.
To again paraphrase my fellow Sligonian, WB Yeats: ‘All changed, changed utterly.’
Let me be clear.
The coronavirus has highlighted injustices in our society and frailties in our economy.
The Government might point to an ever-glowing set of financial accounts as a sign of a healthy society and economy, but the enhanced GDP didn’t stop nurses striking last year for only the second time in the history of the state because they were being overworked and underpaid.
Rising GDP apparently doesn’t mean a living wage for many workers, such as cleaners, shop workers, and lorry drivers, who we now recognize as ‘essential’ to basic services, at great risk to themselves and their families. Rising GDP doesn't stop more and more people becoming homeless, skyrocketing rent, or us having the longest hospital waiting lists in Europe.
As I said already, the recent general election saw a major shift.
We saw an electorate voting en masse for Sinn Féin and an alternative to the status quo. Why? Because most people in Ireland didn’t need a global pandemic to see that the interests of ordinary workers and their families were not being put first.
Whether or not Sinn Féin are excluded from the next government, there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear: change is being thrust upon us. But we must grasp it if we don’t want to return to the pre-Covid days of an unequal society.
Make no mistake, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to start over.
There can be no going back!