Miriam Lord: Nation claps its hands for heroic health workers

All over the country, in a heart-swelling moment of national solidarity, we stopped everything and began to clap our hands.

We clapped our soapy and sudsy and sanitised hands, the cleanest hands ever, for the legions of workers on the front line in our health service and other essential services – doctors, nurses, cleaners, caterers, first responders, retail staff and all the rest.

Working for us in the face of a deathly pandemic.

At 8pm on Thursday night, respect and gratitude found voice in the community. It was a small gesture, but it was something. In the dark emptiness of quiet streets, the sound of hands clapping echoed off the stone, like the clip-clopping of horses.

It wasn’t the cavalry coming to the rescue, but it sounded like it.

And if everyone who came out to show appreciation for the frontline staff keeps observing new rules made necessary by the advancing virus, they will be a formidable auxiliary force in the war against Covid-19.

There is strength in unity.

At 8pm, Dáil Éireann stopped too.

The Ceann Comhairle was engrossed in his papers and ploughing through amendments as the clock counted down.

The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste had returned to the chamber, along with Opposition leaders. For a moment, it seemed like Seán Ó Fearghaíl had forgotten. Bríd Smith of People Before Profit, who had suggested earlier that the House heed the HSE’s request to applaud frontline workers at 8pm, spoke up to remind him – but she needn’t have worried.

Ó Fearghaíl had been keeping a close eye on the clock on his desk.

“Tá sé a hocht a chlog anois [it’s eight o’clock now],” he announced. “And, in accordance with the agreement of the Dáil earlier today, let us all please stand and applaud as a mark of thanks and respect to the workers in the front line.”

Clapped and clapped

The politicians rose to their feet and clapped, and clapped and clapped. The journalists in the press gallery clapped. The noise resonated in the sparsely populated chamber, where the occupants were spaced well apart from each other in a well-co-ordinated display of social distancing.

You could sense the wind picking up. But that’s par for the course when any session is about to start in the Dáil

The applause went on for well over the intended minute. It was a moving sight, with many deputies close to tears. Having spent the day debating emergency legislation, this was a sobering moment for them and a reminder of the responsibility they also have to bear at this time of crisis.

“Thank you all,” said the Ceann Comhairle when the applause finally subsided. There was nothing more to say – the scene spoke for itself.

And they got back to work in the emotionally charged atmosphere.

A reduced complement of TDs mustered in the Dáil chamber on Thursday morning and immediately got down to the urgent task of battening down the national hatches.

They were in a race against time. This job needed to be done in a day.

The storm is approaching.

You could feel it in the air – around the corridors of Leinster House and in the eerily deserted streets and squares around parliament with their shuttered shopfronts and boarded up pubs.

You could sense the wind picking up. But in fairness, that’s par for the course when any session is about to start in the Dáil.

This was not a normal sitting. It was one for taking “unprecedented actions to respond to an unprecedented emergency”, as the Taoiseach put it. It gave legislators a 12-hour window of opportunity to vote through a complex Bill containing an extraordinary raft of legislation designed to shield the country from the worst ravages of the coronavirus crisis.

Constructive suggestions

Politicians from all sides united to put these protective measures in place. They questioned aspects of some and offered constructive suggestions to improve others.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin spoke of the “fine balance” between “supporting a common message to the public and maintaining space for asking tough questions and pointing to areas where action may be required”.

Discussion throughout the day was earnest and sincerely pitched towards parliament doing everything possible to ease the burden for the many, many people who will find themselves caught up in this calamitous pandemic in all manner of ways.

Think of a Bill’s passage through the Dáil staged by the

Reduced Shakespeare Company, but without the laughs

So it was a case of heads down, differences aside and everyone pitching for the common good. Those protective measures had to be in place before the storm, so TDs hammered away until day turned to night and the work was done.

Is this the way it feels before a hurricane strikes?

Heads down, everyone pitching in, differences temporarily set aside, hammering plywood sheets to windows and tying down anything that moves.

The uniqueness of the occasion was noted by many speakers, particularly those deputies unlikely to see themselves or their groupings figure in the next government. This was their contribution to the Corona War effort, but don’t expect such compliance when it ends. Normal political hostilities will resume.

The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020 completed every stage in the Dáil in under 12 hours, a process which ordinarily would have taken months.

Think of a Bill’s passage through the Dáil written and produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, but without any of the laughs. The Complete Works of Bill Completion (abridged): a fast-paced drama, hard-hitting and heartbreaking, but suffused with hope and played with honour by an excellent cast.

They rattled through it.

“This emergency has already cost lives and cost jobs and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Leo Varadkar told the House, before he had to leave to take part in a video conference call with other EU leaders.

Sad and uplifted

The Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, quoted the poem by Derek Mahon called Everything Is Going to Be All Right and managed to make us feel sad and uplifted at the same time.

Intoning the line “There will be dying, there will be dying”, he added that the Government and all members of the Dáil “are looking to diminish those deaths”.

Elsewhere, Mahon writes, “the hidden source is the watchful heart.”

Donohoe urged people to “use that watchful heart to ensure social distancing does not become loneliness. That is an act that all of us, public representatives or not, can be complicit in.”

Opposition deputies put necessary questions to the Government about aspects of the Bill. There was concern from Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty – standing in for party leader Mary Lou McDonald who decided to stay at home because she had symptoms of a cold – about banks and vulture funds taking advantage of distressed mortgage holders.

There were serious concerns about construction work continuing in situations where social distancing is almost impossible to observe. The Government promised to take action. The case for student nurses being paid for their work was put again and it emerged that this will happen.

Renters needed to be looked after, as did people in direct provision.

Socialist TDs were shaking their heads at the way the Government could implement measure is such areas as housing which they previously said could not be done as it would be unconstitutional.

The Taoiseach argued that the common good trumps everything.

Politicians don’t always have a good reputation, sometimes deservedly so, but we do have an opportunity to shine

But while the necessary scrutiny was conducted by the Opposition, there was general consensus that the legislation would pass.

Jobs Minister Heather Humphreys quoted Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation, when accepting that the Government may not get everything right at the first time of asking.

“When you’re in a crisis, speed trumps perfection.”

It’s time move and move fast.

People want reassurance, said Varadkar. “Politicians don’t always have a good reputation, sometimes deservedly so, but we do have an opportunity to shine. Not as individuals, but as a group. We can show that the ideals that first motivated us to enter politics can sustain us when our country needs hope the most.”

And that, most definitely, would be worth applauding.