Peter Donnelly, Editor
2020. Where do we start? In a year which saw Coronavirus engulf all aspects of normality in its deadly grip. In this final editorial, Peter Donnelly revisits some of the moments and events, both at home and abroad, and provides his thoughts on a year which struck an immensely somber tone for the start of a new decade. It is a year which cannot get lost quick enough; yet will forever go down as a defining moment in the history annals for future generations.
The Covid Year
2020 was ‘The Covid Year.’ The year of unprecednted chaos, loss and state intervention; which turned the ‘old’ way of life into the ‘new normal.’
It will soon be twelve months since the Covid chaos commenced. Twelve months since all aspects of university life, so many took for granted, was transformed into the new routines of virtual study – a virtually alien concept in and of itself, even in January 2020.
The tenacity and resilience of our key NHS workers, particularly those on the frontline in hospitals – doctors, nurses, paramedics and support staff must be commended. Throughout the worst of the pandemic they remained dutifully diligent, patient and calm, despite working in tremendously challenging and dangerous environments.
At the time of writing, On the edge of a New Year Northern Ireland, despite the rolling out of the new Covid-19 vaccine, will face a further six weeks of stringent restricitions, including an 8pm curfew for all businesses – essential or otherwise – until February 2021. The full extent of economic, social and health – both physical and mental, impacts of the series of lockdowns is still relatively unknown; suffice to say it has been devastating for all.
At the time of writing these somber statistics, over 1.8 million people have died from Coronavirus. in the UK and Ireland a total 73,782 people have succumbed to the virus.
Hope is on the horizon, however, as the seasons, slowly but certainly change from Winter to Spring giving birth to brighter, longer days. Every cloud does indeed have a silver lining.
Politics has, per usual, thrown up its myriad of controversies and catastrophies – to say the very least – yet most politicians, the world over, have remained consistently preoccupied with the global Coronavirus emergency.
A United States: In Name Alone
A new US President will take office in January 2021, signalling a radical change in direction and approach to White House and global governance.
Following what was a US Presidential election campaign – without precedent – America still remains divided following great ruptures in political and social life, exacerbated by protests over racism and the fact that it remains a cancer which is far from consigned to the past. How far Joe Biden will be successful in his pronounced endeavour to “heal” America’s wounds remains to be seen; particularly when the current President resolutely refuses to accept the result of the November 2020 election.
Another peculiar novelty, particular to 2020.
Closer to home, January 2020 saw the restoration of devolutionary governance to Northern Ireland following three years of dormancy, with the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement.
The optimisitc spirit of that ‘new approach’ has somewhat decimated in twelve months with the notorious, petty political squabbling between Executive parties continuing to hinder progress towards a conventional system of governing.
The Covid-19 pandemic, has seen the parties maintaining an outward – if fragile – consensus of support for Health Minister Robin Swann in the course of public health decision-making.
As one commentator put it, both joint First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill are staying together “for the sake of the children” – the people of Northern Ireland.
Brexit has taught Northern Ireland’s political sects tough and obvious lessons – whether they will heed them is another thing. As Northern Ireland looks ahead to one hundred years of its existence, it is bruised and battered, yet it has still emerged.
The fact there will be a regulatory, customs border between Britain and Ireland, by virtue of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the 2019 UK-EU Brexit agreement, has left many unionists feeling uncertain over Northern Ireland’s place in the Union; notwithstanding claims to the contrary.
A muted consensus has developed within broader Unionist circles that the final result of Brexit has been a disastrous blow, courtesy of DUP intransigence and naive pandering to consecutive Conservative administrations.
In December 1920, uncertainty over Ireland’s future was ever present for both unionists and nationalists – north and south with partition having become a concrete certainty by the introduction of the Government of Ireland Act.
2021 will see, yet again, the well-worn tribal arguments invoked. Yet the difficult question of reconciliation has, despite concerted individual efforts, remained largely untouched since the 1998 Agreement. The past has illustrated the futility of perpetual inter-communal strife.
The history is concrete, the future is not and the lessons of failure should be recognised and a progressive approach adopted as Northern Ireland enters its centenary, for the benefit of relations internal and external.
A Thaw in the cycle of Civil War politics
The Civil War in Ireland, between 1922 and 1923, gave birth to the political establishment of Ireland for the best part of a century. The bitter vying of Fine Gal and Fianna Fail, once united under the Sinn Féin banner during the campaign for Irish independence, constantly kindled the memories passed down by both sects antecedents of past wrongs and grievances.
A Cessation of Civil war political rivalry: Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar now in coalition and the founding fathers of their respective political inheritances, General Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.
2020 saw the thawing of the ice age, which Michael Laffan described as poisoning all political life in independent Ireland, in what was a symbolic and historic gesture of the two adversaries entering coalition and sharing power for the benefit of the greater good.
The pressure for both parties to do so was great, as Sinn Féin accelerated in popularity against, what they termed, the ‘old boys network.’ Fianna Fail managed to secure a majority of seats in the Dáil, yet needed a firm parliamentary majority to cement their control of the executive. Both Fine Gael and the Green Party, a somewhat unlikely ally, obliged Micheal Martin’s offer.
Begone Is Brexit…
Almost five years since the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union project, despite all the odds, hurdles and dead ends, which almost scuppered the chances of a trading and future relationship deal, one came on the night before Christmas 2020. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement, consisting of 1,246 pages of dense legal text and jargon – including the level-playing field, trade, transport, the provision of services, the movement of goods, legal services, security and justice – was one of those things that simply just needed to happen.
It was one of the few positive out-workings of years of acrimony and a bitter divorce battle between Britain and a paranoid EU elite forcefully determined to maintain the project’s integrity. There was no celebratory handshake or even a concealed embrace under the mistletoe for Boris Johnson and Usuala Von Der Lyen. The impact the agreement will have on the immediate practicalities of cross-Channel trade in 2021 will soon be seen and The Gown will be following developments with its keenly critical eye.
Upon a speedily ratification session in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister heralded the UK-EU Agreement as the beginning of the “new relationship between Britain and the EU as sovereign equals, joined by friendship, commerce, history, interests and values, while respecting one another’s freedom of action and recognising that we have nothing to fear if we sometimes choose to do things differently.”
Yet the concerning images of lorry drivers being blocked at Dover, due to France closing their border with the UK, is a reminder of the disruption and untold chaos that would have resulted had no trade deal been agreed following the 2020 Transition Period.
On that note, the lorry drivers who were stranded at ports in the South of England and who failed to make it home to see their loved-ones over Christmas, command our utmost respect. What we have in our homes – our daily essential – are hauled by lorry drivers up and down the UK and Ireland.
Although it would be hopelessly naive to assume that all will change at midnight on the 1st January 2021. There will be no miracles. As editor of a student newspaper, I would urge all young people to continue to follow best practice and observe the Government restrictions. Such an approach will prove paramount in seeing this virus until it is safely controlled by the vaccine.
In the sprit of the lasting wisdom of Seamus Heaney’s words, ‘If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.’ in 2021 this will be as relevant as ever.
See the BBC’s 2020 Year in Review, featuring politics, economy and the arts and entertainment.
A thought for 2021
Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.Alfred, Lord Tennyson Ulysses (1842)