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Letter from...Belfast

14 July 2020

By Austyn Close, Senior Executive

This weekend felt worlds away from the everyday of the last four months. A weekend where life (almost) felt entirely normal - restaurants buzzing with people waiting for their first meals out, car parks full of eager sun worshippers and shops in full swing. 

It was welcome. A pleasure to see families confident enough to embrace the world outside again without fear. On Saturday I road tripped along Northern Ireland’s famous Antrim Coast – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – and the first time this year that I’ve paid a visit. I usually make a trip up on an annual basis but who knew that the next time I would meander the scenic coves would be when the world emerged out of a pandemic-enforced lockdown. 

The only notable differences on the trip were the extra precautions restaurants and cafes were taking to separate and care for customers. Two metre spaced tables and one-way flow systems are engrained into almost every public building now. Despite this new format, it was an absolute delight to enjoy the things you take for granted, to smile at a waiter and pay thanks for food that you didn’t make from last night’s leftovers. 

Despite the somewhat overcast weather, visitors and tourists were out on full force. The ports, beaches, bays and glens were stomping grounds for the day - there was certainly a different feeling in the air. 

Passers-by would say “hello” and shopkeepers smiled with delight to see a new face. The Chancellor would be happy to see such positive economic activity along Northern Ireland’s most visited coastline. In terms of tourism – an industry greatly hit by COVID-19 – the Antrim Coast and all of its hidden gems play a vital economic role in Northern Ireland’s economy. After all, it is one of the most beautiful stretches of rustic coastline in the world (and the Game of Thrones film crew capitalised on this during production). 

Before all this splendid sightseeing and walking miles on end to peer over cliff edges, a tiny blip in COVID-19 infections erupted last week in the very area I live in. The local news broke that 16 families in County Down were identified as having contracted the virus - the first major spike in weeks for this province of the UK. Throughout the pandemic, despite over 600 people’s lives having been taken, Northern Ireland has remained resilient in the face of an unrelenting virus. People have listened to the public health message and heeded government advice. 

It wouldn’t be Northern Ireland without a little political intrigue. Mounting frustration towards the Deputy First Minister has left the public wondering why they should continue abiding by the Executive’s advice. Michelle O’Neill of the republican party, Sinn Fein, recently attended the funeral of a republican ally alongside other leading Sinn Fein politicians including the party’s president, Mary Lou McDonald. Her attendance came under scrutiny from across all political denominations and parties within the ruling Executive. Her argument that she did not undermine the rules by attending, against her own advice, is just as worrying. 

I stand within the often described ‘third community’ of Northern Ireland – a middle-ground between the Unionist and Nationalist camps – but I do agree with the DUP’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, that her colleague’s actions have caused consequences for the very people abiding by the official advice. 

Perhaps, just perhaps, some of those 16 families infected last week happened to attend the same funeral as O’Neill. A stark reminder to us all that no one can truly be sure that they are safe.

But one thing is for sure, we’re on our way out and last weekend was an optimistic reminder that we all have something to aim for as long as we’re all playing our part.