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Why the Taoiseach owes the country – and Peadar Tóibín – an apology

Here is the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, responding to Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín in the Dáil on March 31st, 2021:

And here is that same Taoiseach, reportedly speaking, per the Irish Examiner, last week:

Ireland is to be hit by a “frightening” wave of delayed cancer diagnoses next year and, in some cases, it will be too late for medicine, Taoiseach Michéal Martin has warned.

Speaking at a private Fianna Fáil meeting, Mr Martin said medical experts have warned him of “dramatically increasing cancers because of delayed diagnoses” linked to the impact of Covid-19 on the health service.

During the first wave of Covid, from March to May 2020 — a time of strict limits on travel and gathering when many people cocooned — there was a significant drop in the number of people presenting to doctors with concerns about cancer.

If it transpires – and everyone should hope that it does not transpire – that there is in fact a devastating wave of missed cancer diagnoses over the next year, then the Irish Government cannot claim that they were not warned. The fact is, as we see above, that they were directly confronted about this possibility, at the very highest level, and openly dismissed the warning as some kind of offensive far-right anti-lockdown scaremongering.

Across Europe, at the moment, there is a crippling wave of excess deaths. This is what the European Union’s in-house statisticians record:

In August 2022, excess mortality continued to vary across the EU: four Member States (Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia) had rates below 5.5%, while Greece recorded a rate of 24.3%. Rates over 15% were also recorded in Ireland (16.8%), Germany (16.5%) and Finland (16.3%).

Right now, people in Ireland are dying at a rate 16.8% above what one might expect, in a normal year. And that is before this “devastating wave” of missed cancers may, or may not, hit us next year.

Watch the video above, and Mr. Martin’s demeanour in it. It’s an almost perfect facsimile of how politics works in Ireland, in a time of crisis: Questioning the policy – which is Mr. Tóibín’s job, as a member of the opposition – is not simply regarded as misguided, but almost offensive. “Get real”, the Taoiseach says.

Those are not the words of somebody who believes that they are conducting their preferred policy from a range of possible choices: They are the words of somebody who believed at the time, with all of his heart and soul, that there simply was no other legitimate policy to pursue. Lockdown was not treated as one option from a range of possible responses to the covid virus, but as the only legitimate response. People who questioned it were not simply wrong, they were engaging in some sort of fantasy thinking.

That’s how Ireland works, too often: There’s a myth in Ireland about “the grown ups”. That is to say, that in times of crisis, there’s a belief that there exists a “grown up” thing to do, which the mature adults running the country will do, and then there’s a sort of immature fringe extreme, with wacky ideas, who can be safely ignored. This framing is used time, and time again, in times of crisis, and it is adopted almost religiously by Ireland’s media, which is very keen for readers and viewers to know that they are reading and listening to the sober views of grown-up mature people. This is a country that cannot do anything without first finding a national consensus, and then herding to that consensus, whatever the costs may be.

During the lockdown, the “grown up” belief was that you lock down first, regardless of the costs, and that you “listen to the experts”. The problem with this is that the experts, are, of course, as vulnerable to the pressure to herd around a consensus as anybody else: That is why doctors who questioned the need for lockdown were, in some cases, unceremoniously ditched from their jobs. It is why people who questioned the consensus couldn’t get on television, even if they were actually experts themselves: The rule in Ireland is that an expert who questions the national consensus simply cannot be considered a true expert. Perhaps they once were, in another time – but if you’ve a doctor who questions lockdown, for example, then clearly he or she has become a far right lunatic, and not an expert worth hearing from.

And, of course, if it does transpire that lockdown was the wrong policy, then that error will never be admitted. If it is acknowledged – which is not the same thing as admitted – then others will be blamed. That’s the thing about “listening to the experts”: There’s always a built-in excuse. Soon, if lockdown does get blamed for a lingering high death rate, Irish experts who advocated it will be absolved of their sins. We will be told that what happened was “international best practice at the time”, and so on, and so forth.

But none of this is true. At the time, there were those of us – including Deputy Tóibín and others – who were willing to observe the risks of the policy and argue against it, even in the teeth of a suffocating national consensus. There were those of us who wrote and argued that lockdown might ultimately cause more deaths than it prevented.

But that wasn’t the grown-up thing to do. That’s the problem, in Ireland: If you could convince an Irish politician that burning the whole country down was the grown-up thing to do, and that it was in line with best international practice, they’d do it. And our media, not wanting to be left out, would write that the burning was executed competently, and with great national buy-in, showing the efficiency of the Irish state and the character of its people in the best possible light.

If you questioned it, there’s a fair chance you’d be told to get real. With genuine – not faked – indignation. Because once we decide that a thing is obviously the grown-up thing to do, there’s no stopping us. Whatever the cost.

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