Many words can be used to describe 2020. Unprecedented, extraordinary, dismal. But if we look at 2020 another way, in terms of the political world, could we describe government inaction as the price we have paid for a year that we would rather forget?
In our own nation, our Northern Ireland Executive fell short of our expectations in some regards, albeit our expectations were never that high. The year started with a return to our mandatory coalition and the doors of the assembly chamber finally reopened. The pandemic came and cracks started to appear after just three months in government. Arguments surrounding when to shut schools, disagreements about how best to slowly move forward through a challenge no government has faced before in contemporary politics, shortages of PPE equipment, and no strategy to protect Care Homes, were just a few challenges to overcome. Despite this, those cracks were covered up and the public felt like they could once again trust our Executive to work for the common good of the people. We started to believe that even our political leaders couldn’t make the pandemic a green and orange issue. Again, it was too good to be true.
In late June, the funeral of Republican Bobby Storey took place, with Sinn Fein’s political leaders both sides of the border walking front and centre. It was viewed as disrespectful to those who lost their lives to COVID-19 and to all those who obeyed the restrictions since day one of implementation. This caused a major political fallout, with First Minister Arlene Foster refusing to appear in Covid-19 briefings alongside the Deputy First Minister until September, with the other four Executive parties calling for her to step aside. Her apology was described as falling short of the recognition of the hurt it caused many. Perhaps a sign of too little, too late as it wasn’t until September that the Deputy First Minister realised the implications of her actions.
On the other side of the political world, the DUP caused controversy of its own. The outspoken voices in the party proved a challenge to its political leader. Edwin Poots made the pandemic a sectarian issue by claiming that COVID-19 cases were higher in Nationalist areas. No apology was made by Poots and the inaction of the DUP to apologise on his behalf was too little, too late for the disrespect this also caused. Sammy Wilson made appearances in the news quite regularly for all the wrong reasons. Being pictured on the London Underground with no mask on was seen by many as a total disregard for the regulations and for the safety of those around him. Although an apology was offered, it added fuel to the fire and made the public view political leaders as thinking they were exempt from the rules.
Additionally, the education system was severely affected by the pandemic and August 2020 made that apparent. The controversy over the algorithms used by the examination boards lowered teacher predictions, giving young people lower grades than they might have otherwise have achieved under normal examination circumstances and disheartening many young people at one of the most challenging times of their lives. This affected all of the UK suggesting that algorithms do not work for everything. A U-turn was made by Education Minister Peter Weir, a common theme in 2020 that reflects government ineffectiveness. Despite trying to protect everyone in society, an idealistic view some would argue, many have been left behind and without government protection in terms of financial support from the Department of Economy. The self-employed have been given minimal support with many struggling to get by every day and constant delays in the release of money to those who have been excluded from wider financial packages. This has proved that many have to fight for their rights in a time of uncertainty when government is meant to provide for the people in times of need, yet government agendas sometimes never change. Another depiction of the too little, too late scenario.
Disagreements still exist in our Executive and U-turns are still recurring with the reduction of recent Christmas celebrations a week before the big day. But as I wrote earlier in 2020, it would be unthinkable what position our nation would have been in without a regional government in place. Whether you think we would have been better off without them, I certainly believe we would have been forgotten about by both British and Irish governments as they had their own challenges to face first and foremost.
The wider UK government didn’t perform much better, and in fact, possibly worse than our NI Executive. The British government has captured the essence of the meaning too little, too late. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke too soon when in January 2020 he tweeted this would be a 'great year for Britain', now a popular meme now to reflect that it really wasn’t a great year. Many scientists believed the UK government was to slow to enforce full national lockdowns in March. Lockdown a week earlier would have saved many lives and so, for many, this was too little, too late. The next subsequent failure was safeguarding UK care homes with many abandoned due to the inaction of government to protect the most vulnerable in society. The government thought it best to discharge 25,000 hospital patients into care homes, including those potentially infected with Covid-19. A shocking action showing incompetence by our government. Another key failing of the UK government was the failure to support free school meals provided to some of the most vulnerable children in our society who have been left to educate themselves with few resources. It took the action and promotion of this issue by footballer Marcus Rashford to convince the government that they are failing to support an entire generation of children who will have a bright future ahead of them if they are just given a little support along the way. He forced the government to make two U-turns which showed the shocking disregard for those that the government is meant to protect and again, apologies are too little, too late.
As we move into 2021, some hail the recent Brexit agreement as a success for this country but actions speak louder than words. We leave the EU with a deal that was hard to picture at times this past year. But did this take the attention away from a much needed Coronavirus focus at a time of a serious rise in cases? Well, time will tell in January and February.
Despite all this, there is cause for optimism that is not irrational. The vaccines being produced at such rapid paces given the technology, effectiveness and efficiency with which scientists have worked, producing a beginning to the end of this horrible pandemic gives us confidence that we can see light at the end of the tunnel in 2021. It might be sometime before we can be in large crowds together or go out without requiring a substantial meal, but the vaccine gives us the hope that we all have needed after a mostly bleak year.
Reflecting on 2020 gives us a chance to look back on a year that, for most people, has been one of the worst or, at least, not their best . But what makes it less challenging in some regard is that we were all in the same boat. We all faced similar struggles, whether that be mental health, financial, loss of loved ones or just getting by in everyday life. Government inaction, in some respects, has let us all down and made us disbelieve the good that can come out of government. But a pessimistic outlook won’t get us very far in the future and so whilst the title might suggest those we elected didn’t protect us in ways we thought they might, it has made us realise that those who provide everyday services are the ones we can be truly thankful for and they rarely let us down, despite the world working against them some of the time. Perhaps 2020 also bought us a much needed pause to our busy lives, a time to reflect on what is important to us. For a brief moment in the summer we had freedom which many of us appreciated before we went back into dreaded lockdowns across the country. We have been unable to celebrate big occasions but we found ways around this to make them the next best thing. Delayed celebrations of 2020 are something we can look forward to in the new year, even if we have to wait just that little bit longer.
We go into 2021 with another lockdown and with a more cautious attitude, a sort of ‘don’t touch anything’ approach until we can be absolutely sure we can move forward. Undoubtedly, we may bring some of 2020 into this coming year, particularly in the first few months. However, if we can bring the resilient attitude that we all developed, the gratitude that we showed our essential workers and those who raised money and helped those in need, and the hopeful outlook that has carried us through one of the toughest years, then we can count that as a win and a positive of 2020.
Jessica Johnston is a 21 year old Masters student at QUB studying International Public Policy. Her political interests include local politics, American politics and international relations.