The legacy of Northern Ireland’s powersharing vacuum prior to the Covid-19 emergency will inevitably by examined by the UK inquiry into the pandemic, a preliminary hearing has been told.
Lead counsel to the Northern Ireland module of the inquiry, Clair Dobbin KC, told chairwoman Baroness Hallett a ministerial executive in Belfast was re-established after a three-year impasse in January 2020 – just a month before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the region.
Outlining the issues the inquiry will have to consider, Ms Dobbin said it will be important to assess what effect the long period without proper governance had on the response to the pandemic.
Wednesday’s preliminary hearing in London marked the beginning of the Northern Ireland-focused module of the UK-wide inquiry.
It heard that 4,900 deaths in region had been linked to Covid-19 since the outset of the pandemic.
While another preliminary hearing will take place early next year, the substantive evidence hearings related to the Northern Ireland module are not expected to take place until early 2024.
The Stormont Executive imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as Sinn Fein deputy First Minister in a row over the DUP’s handling of a botched green energy scheme.
The political dispute widened to take in long-standing wrangles on issues such as the Irish language and the legacy of the Troubles, leading to a three-year impasse without elected ministers when public services were run by civil servants with limited decision-making powers.
Powersharing returned in early January 2020 when Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to lead another coalition together. Six weeks later, the first Covid-19 case was confirmed.
Setting out the scope of the inquiry module on Northern Ireland, Ms Dobbin said: “It’s inevitable that this will include consideration of the consequences of not having powersharing arrangements right up until the emergence of Covid.”
She added: “It seems to us, my Lady, that there are a series of really practical questions that gives rise to. But, standing back from that, the main question appears to be what impact it had on those who picked up the reins of power in January 2020 and who were not just beginning to run government again in Northern Ireland and all that that entails, but who were thrust headlong into dealing with a rapidly unfolding pandemic.
“What was the legacy of the absence of powersharing arrangements on the institutions of government, on civil servants, on the health service? How did that shape the response by the government to the pandemic?”
At the outset of the pandemic, the newly-formed executive was led by DUP First Minister Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
In the latter stages, Ms Foster was replaced by Paul Givan as first minister.
All have been afforded the status of core participants in the inquiry.
Ms Dobbin said the nature of Stormont’s devolved arrangements, which in 2020 saw five rival parties sharing power in a mandatory coalition, will also be examined by the inquiry.
“Standing back and pulling the lens out, as it were, I anticipate what you (the inquiry chairwoman) may also want to scrutinise, given the unique powersharing arrangements in Northern Ireland, is whether and to what extent politicians pulled together for the good of all people and to what effect,” she said.
The barrister said the effectiveness of the Stormont Executive’s relationship with the UK Government will also be looked at.
She said Northern Ireland’s land border with the Republic of Ireland added a “different dimension” to the module.
One of the core participants in the inquiry – the Covid 19 Bereaved Families For Justice Northern Ireland – has called for rigorous examination of the political and practical consequences of the border issue.
Baroness Hallett said the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland dynamic would be investigated “thoroughly”.
“They are very important issues and I am very conscious of them,” she said.
In her opening address, Ms Dobbin urged politicians and civil servants to adopt an “inclusive approach” to the inquiry and advised against defending “positions at all costs”.
“The inquiry’s mission overall is to ascertain what can be done now so that the scale of death and suffering seen does not happen again,” she said.
“My Lady, you have made it known and you have stressed that you want this inquiry to foster an inclusive approach and that those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged or who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic are to the fore.
“We hope that all core participants will join with us in this common cause.
“We encourage organisations, government, ministers, politicians to participate in the inquiry in this same spirit, not to defend positions at all costs, but on the understanding that they have a vitally important role to play in safeguarding future generations.”
At the outset of the hearing, the inquiry chairwoman noted there have been calls for a separate inquiry to be established into the handling of the pandemic in Northern Ireland, similar to the stand-alone investigation set up by the Scottish government.
Baroness Hallett said she is “entirely neutral” on the issue.
“I know that there have been some in Northern Ireland who have campaigned and asked for a separate inquiry dealing only with Northern Irish issues,” she said.
“Obviously, that’s not a decision for me and I am entirely neutral. But I will say this: that if another inquiry is established, I will work closely with it, as we are trying to do with the Scottish inquiry, to try and ensure that no issues are missed and that we all minimise any duplication of effort.
“If no other inquiry is established for Northern Ireland, my team and I will do everything in our powers to ensure that the most significant and important issues that the people of Northern Ireland wish to see investigated will be investigated fully and fairly.”