The coronavirus hasn’t heard about constitutional loyalty

Several decades ago, when we were establishing a part-time Master’s programme at Óllscoil Uladh/Ulster University, we included an online element in the form of emails and online announcements. This strand of the programme got mixed reactions, with one otherwise-intelligent student asking “Would it not be simpler to just phone people?”

When people are used to working in a particular way,  they tend to resist, sometimes fiercely, any new system. With the pandemic which we’re now living through, people are much more open to new ways of working, for the very good reason that it’s either working online or not working at all.

With the UK belatedly seeing the light, hundreds of thousands of school pupils will be meeting with their teachers through video conferencing, attending seminars through systems such as Facetime and Zoom. Ireland north and south will be depending on the internet to continue all educational studies. What before was included as an optional extra or not at all has become the only show in town.

The same will soon apply to politics. It makes little sense for MPs or TDs or MLAs to travel miles and assemble in one grand building and risk spreading the virus, when, t with a small degree of planning,  most of the work could be continued online.

As with our student who recommended the tried-and-trusted telephone, there will be those who will resist these new ways of working. To a degree they’re right. It is important that an element of face-to-face meetings be included in any such system. But for many people, a huge amount of time and effort is put into commuting to a central point to meet with co-workers, when that same time could be used in a way that might dramatically shorten the working week. If you  spend two hours on commuting to and from work,  that’s ten hours each week, which could be factored into creating a four-day rather than a five-day work week. What’s not to like?

Well, actually, a number of things. There’s the resistance to change displayed by the phone-loving student several decades back. Today, incredibly, there are political impediments.

As we know, the UK has left the closing of its schools, including those in the north of Ireland, a week later than those in the south. We were told by Arlene Foster that medical experts had said the time was not ripe until now for school closure to happen. In today’s Irish Times their unionist commentator Newton Emerson (who sometimes reminds me of the character Squealer in Animal Farm  – read the book, Virginia, read the book) Newton writes that “The North is two weeks behind the South on the epidemic. Both parts of Ireland are at different stages because of their different societies and economies. There never was any need to make this a constitutional issue.”

Oh dear. Different societies, different economies affect the spread of the coronavirus and thus different reactions make sense. If we haven’t noticed that the virus disregards  differences in societies and economies – that’s why it’s called a pandemic – maybe it’s time we did an online test with Specsavers.  The only people who made this a “constitutional issue”  were those who clung to the skirts of Mother  Britain and insisted she was the only credible source of medical advice

Some people cling on to old ways of thinking and acting, even when it’s a matter of life and death. And the rest of us are expected to sit quietly and accept it.

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