An Open Message to Fianna Fáil

Until recently, I would have said that you hadn’t done too badly with COVID-19. That said, you didn’t have much to compete with, did you? Fine Gael’s major (only?) pandemic policy achievement was a long and harsh lockdown. And it wasn’t so much a policy decision as it was a necessity forced upon the nation by Fine Gael’s incompetence… but we’ll get to that later.

The 5 Levels framework, on the other hand, really was a step forward. A graduated system of risk control measures is a common feature of national pandemic response infrastructures. It gives the nation forward guidance so that we know what to expect and we can plan accordingly. People don’t like uncertainty, it’s a cost in itself. Governments should always look to reduce uncertainty wherever possible at times like these. The 5 Levels framework is an important piece of Ireland’s pandemic defence infrastructure, and one that we can build on in future.

That said, the purpose of such a framework is to protect the public health from the initial threat of the virus (in which case we move quickly up the Levels) and once the threat has been eliminated, we slowly and safely descend until we have returned our society to normal. These frameworks are not designed to manage the transmission of the virus over months and years. In that scenario, it would start to behave like an autoimmune disease that attacks the healthy cells and does more harm than good. That is where Ireland is right now.

The desire to open for Christmas was well-intentioned, but the policy was flawed. Admittedly, I can say this with the full benefit of hindsight, but Level 5 isn’t strong enough for Dublin, so cases were never going to come down far enough to make it work. The B117 variant made things significantly worse, but who saw that coming? Not NPHET.

For the most part, you have found yourself with NPHET on one side, who have no plan, no ideas, and nothing to offer but permanent restrictions until the vaccine arrives. On the other, you have an assortment of academics, ‘experts’, and random yahoos (of which, I guess I am one) telling you to open up, close down, or that it doesn't matter either way because infection is driven by the weather. No one has yet come up with a realistic, workable plan to suppress, eliminate, or live with the virus, so what can you do? You’re left in the middle, trying to make some kind of sense of it all.

Well, there are options. If you look around this site you will find some. Before you do that, you should understand the environment in which you’re operating, both domestically and internationally.

This Was Fine Gael’s Crisis

As much as Fianna Fáil took the blame for financial crisis, when the dust has settled, the people of Ireland will understand that the COVID-19 crisis was a Fine Gael crisis engendered by characteristically Fine Gael mistakes.

In January and February of 2020, alarm bells were ringing all over the world, and they had been growing louder with every passing day. Despite the clear and obvious dangers, Fine Gael were focused on doing as little as possible. They posed for the cameras, they gave us the usual catchphrases and buzzwords, but no policies were put in place to protect the people. The one thing they needed to get right was travel restrictions – and there was plenty of international precedence by that point – but they made every excuse under the sun to avoid doing the work (the border, the CTA, the EU etc). They made the situation so much worse by deciding not to test anyone. The state didn’t have a lot of tests at the time, but instead of purchasing more, Varadkar told the nation that:

We only have so many arrows in our quiver…and it’s really important that we don’t fire all our shots at first.

If they weren’t trying to stop the virus at the border, and they weren’t testing for it in the population, then how were they going to stop the disease spreading? How were they going to protect the health of the Irish people? They couldn’t. They weren’t even trying. And that was why the first lockdown was so severe.

The previous quote was made by Varadkar on the 10th of March. The following day, the WHO would declare the outbreak a pandemic, citing “alarming levels of inaction” from leaders around the world. How fitting it was that Ireland’s absentee Taoiseach was in Washington at the time, having a special dinner in his honour.

You can ignore the opinion polls from June. Once the people understand just how badly they were screwed over, Fine Gael are going to struggle at the next election.

It Was also NPHET’s Crisis

While responsibility for this national catastrophe should lie primarily with Fine Gael, NPHET also played a central role, something akin to the banks and the developers in the financial crisis. We can also think of Ireland's 'expert' community – the various professors and academics that turned up after the virus had spread through the country – as being like the regulators who were asleep at the wheel in 2008. Where was their expertise in January '20 when it could have done some good for the nation?

NPHET claimed to be following the international experts’ advice, but I see very little relationship between the WHO’s official advice, NPHET’s actions, and NPHET’s thinking as reflected in their minutes. It seemed that – like Fine Gael – they were talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

Then again, NPHET’s minutes have never been the source of much insight. Despite the increase in secretarial capacity, NPHET's minutes are usually published 3-8 weeks late and contain scant information about what was actually discussed at their meetings. NPHET have been deliberately anti-transparent in their communications with the public. It’s almost as if they don’t want any scrutiny over their (in)actions.

Some things we know for sure:

Even now we could be experimenting with rapid testing or ivermectin, but NPHET is against both. NPHET appears to be against anything that isn't permanent restrictions and directly putting all the blame and responsibility on the people (and indirectly on the government). NPHET is also against ZeroCOVID, so if you’re a ZeroCOVID denier, that should give you pause for thought!

Last but not least, Tony Holohan became deputy CMO in 2001 and full CMO in 2008. Since then, we have seen SARS, Swine Flu, MERS, and the Zika Virus. The WHO and other international experts have held dozens of major conferences and written reams of reports on the dangers of pandemics, as Mike Ryan can tell you. Tony was there through it all. Why didn't he do anything about it? Why was Ireland totally unprepared for this long-predicted pandemic?

Keep a Polite Distance From the EU

As far as the COVID crisis is concerned, the most important fact to remember about the EU, is that it was not prepared for a pandemic. It had no plan. There were a few lengthy policy documents on the topic of pandemics, but it had no practical ‘whole-of-society’ plan with steps and goals and timelines that would be implemented if and when the much-predicted pandemic-potential virus eventually arrived.

It is disconcerting that an institution with the scale, resources, and eternal ambitions of the European Union never developed a coherent plan to protect its citizens from infection and death. The consequences of this incompetence and neglect – in addition to the many policy failures that followed – can be seen in the EU nations’ deaths-per-million statistics. The EU's refusal to implement international travel restrictions lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, not only in the EU, but also in the developing world, as the continent became both a breeding ground and a launchpad for COVID-19.

But that’s not what you’d think reading the Irish media, is it?

Having lived abroad for much of my adult life, I can tell you that what is written in the establishment media about the EU bears little relationship to what is actually happening in Brussels and beyond. Our media is incapable of giving any objective assessment of the EU because they are guided by an understanding of Anglo-Irish relations that has not evolved since their junior cert history classes, and they cannot process any events that aren’t consistent with the old grudge (UK = racist and bad; EU = solidarity and good). The media have decided to side with the EU, and their commentary reflects that decision, rather than any journalistic integrity or any obligation they feel to provide the Irish people with honest objective reporting.

The EU lurches from crisis to crisis, and the Irish media will whitewash every mistake. Worse still, every crisis leads to further calls for member nations to give the EU more powers. The EU is run by imperial nations. Acquiring more and more power is a part fo their cultural DNA. They want our soldiers to fight their imperial wars, and the COVID crisis – in which the EU has resolutely failed – will lead to more calls for our health care to be handed over too. Fine Gael would give them both. What would Fianna Fáil do?

Are We Still A Beggar Nation?

There is a wave of anger building, and as soon as people can assemble again, it will crash all over the establishment. RTE, the Irish Times, Fine Gael, and NPHET will be soaked in public rage. This will be 2008-2011 again, and there will be another major reordering of the Irish political landscape. Personally, I believe the mistakes made in the first 6 months of 2020 should condemn all involved to banishment from the land. Unfortunately, memories fade. We find it easier to recall the most recent injuries, not necessarily the most severe. Given the scale of the establishment’s incompetence, I didn’t think that there would be any anger left for Fianna Fáil, until recently.

The problem for Fianna Fail is that it has shown no desire to do anything to ease the suffering on the Irish people. There has been no pragmatism, no experimentation, no standards, no pride in the nation, and the people are rightly pissed off about that. Fianna Fáil’s plan seems to be to hold on and manage the media flow while we wait for the world to supply us with some vaccines.

As a young(er) adult, I do not accept that the best my people can do is to hold out our hands and beg the world for pity and for help. That degrades my culture, my identity, my sense of self. 100 years on, and we still can't stand on our own two feet? No. We have the resources. We can do better, and I want everyone in the country to understand that fact.

Will This be Fianna Fáil's Crisis too?

2020 has come and gone, and what have we done? What do we have to show for ourselves? Where will we stand at the end of 2021? Will we be able to hold our heads high by then?

What will future generations admire in us, or in how we handled this crisis? This event will reverberate through our history and it will define how the Irish see themselves for decades to come. Do you think those future generations will hold Fianna Fáil in high regard for forcing the nation to suffer through all of this, when you could have at least tried to take responsibility and build a better future for Ireland?

We need to try things – even if they ‘fail’ – so that the next generation has something to build on. This goes beyond politics, or the electoral cycle, or the news cycle. This is how we advance as a nation, over the decades and over the centuries: by taking responsibility, being ambitious, and passing Ireland on in a better state than it was given to us.

As things stand, your generation has given my generation lockdowns and that colourful Levels poster. When the next virus arrives, we will have to start from scratch.

We need leaders who are proud to be Irish, who understand what ‘community’ means, who are protective of Irish culture and heritage, and who want to build a better future for the nation and everyone in it. That's not going to come from the careerists in Fine Gael. It can only come from Fianna Fáil.

It's time for you to double down on your values. This is an opportunity to remind Ireland why it still needs Fianna Fáil. Because if Fianna Fáil has given up trying to make life better for the Irish people during the worst crisis in memory, if you don’t have something to show for yourselves when that wave of anger hits, then you will be dragged under with the rest of them. And to be honest, I think you'll have deserved it.

If you want to prevent that outcome, I suggest you purchase 20 million rapid tests (c€100 million total) and use them in a test case scenario. You could focus them on one part of society, like schools or at entrances to public places, or you could focus them on one area of the country, like Connaught. In any of these scenarios, a high volume rapid testing program will reduce transmission of the virus and it will give us data and information that we can work with to inform further test cases and policy actions. This is a simple experiment that offers a lot of upside, and would leave the country no worse off. I think it is worth discussing.