Uncharted territory for 21st-century Europe

“We will prevail.”

In case anyone needs reminding, this Saturday, March 12th, marks two years to the day since Leo Varadkar stood on the steps of Blair House in icy, pre-dawn Washington DC and addressed the nation.

It was still early back home in Ireland. The then taoiseach’s speech was going out live to an anxious nation. Nobody knew what might happen. What would he say?

And so he began. Those famous opening words: “Good morning, everyone. I need to speak to you about coronavirus and Covid-19.”

We listened. Already scared.

Remember this? “We have not witnessed a pandemic of this nature in living memory. This is uncharted territory. We said we would take the right actions at the right time.

“We have to move now to have the greatest impact.

“So, from 6pm today, the following measures are being put in place. They will stay in place until March 29th . . .”

That was when our world changed.

“There will be many more cases. More people will get sick and unfortunately, we must face the tragic reality that some people will die.

“The virus is all over the world. It will continue to spread but it can be slowed. Its impact can be reduced making it easier for our health service to cope and giving our scientists more time to develop better testing, treatments and a vaccine.”

This situation was unimaginable, hard to take in. Back home, bizarrely, the initial, panicked reaction of large swathes of the population was to rush out to the supermarket and buy vast quantities of toilet roll. Some feared this might be the beginning of the end of the world.

“I know that some of this is coming as a real shock and it is going involve big changes in the way we live our lives. I know that I am asking people to make enormous sacrifices.

“We are doing it for each other.

“Together, we can slow the virus in its tracks and push it back.

“Acting together, as one nation, we can save many lives.

“Our economy will suffer. It will bounce back.

“Lost time in school or college will be recovered. In time, our lives will go back to normal.

“Above all, we all need to look out for each other.

“Ireland is a great nation. And we are great people. We have experienced hardship and struggle before. We have overcome many trials in the past with our determination and our spirit.

“We will prevail.”

The suffering had eased. The economy was bouncing back. The mask mandate was lifted. We had prevailed. Then Russia invaded Ukraine

The then taoiseach was right. We did (or at least most of us did) pull together. People suffered. The economy suffered. But we did slow the virus and we did push it back.

It took two long, long years but finally we began to emerge from beneath the shadow of Covid-19. The suffering had eased. The economy was bouncing back.

Just two weeks ago, the mandatory requirement to wear face masks was lifted.

We had prevailed.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Now war rages in Europe with unspeakable terror prosecuted by despot Vladimir Putin. He is the virus now.

Many are dying. Millions are displaced amid scenes of carnage and upheaval not witnessed since the second World War. Uncharted territory for 21st-century Europe.

Inflation is rising. The economy is suffering. People are suffering. We are frightened for the future. Refugees will arrive in their thousands – we will look out for them and we will look out for each other.

Some fear this might be the beginning of the end of the world. Another, darker, shadow has settled over us.

The then taoiseach’s words from two years ago have renewed meaning.

“We will prevail.”

For we must prevail. Again.

Coffee and solidarity for Ukraine

Before Leaders’ Questions started on Wednesday, the Ceann Comhairle paid tribute to Independent Senator Sharon Keogan for organising “an excellent, splendid and extraordinary event in support of the Irish Red Cross’s endeavours in Ukraine”.

Ukrainian ambassador Larysa Gerasko was guest of honour at the coffee morning. “Not only was there a huge number of members of the parliamentary community present, but 35 embassies were also represented in a phenomenal international display of support. Fair play to Senator Keogan,” said Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Ambassadors from Turkey, Korea, Cyprus, Singapore, Vatican City, the Philippines, Jamaica, Colombia, Spain, Czech Republic, Belgium, Chile, Croatia, Iceland, Portugal, Georgia, Norway, Indonesia, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia, Estonia, Latvia, Israel, Greece, Lesotho, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Lithuania, Guatemala, Slovakia and Kenya showed up to show solidarity with their colleague from Ukraine and her compatriots.

Irish Red Cross chairman Pat Carey, Independent Senator Sharon Keogan and Ukrainian ambassador Larysa Gerasko in Leinster House. Photograph: John McElroy
Irish Red Cross chairman Pat Carey, Independent Senator Sharon Keogan and Ukrainian ambassador Larysa Gerasko in Leinster House. Photograph: John McElroy

They were joined by members of the Dáil and Seanad, along with representatives of the Irish Red Cross and the Irish League of Credit Unions. Oireachtas staff also contributed to the collection which brought in €14,000 in a couple of hours, the biggest amount ever raised at a single event in Leinster House.

Senator Keoghan and a small team of volunteers put the fundraiser together in just four days. She told the guest of honour: “We want to let you know, we stand with you and we will not leave you wanting for whatever you may need in the coming months and years. You are showing true leadership and support to your fellow Ukrainians here in Ireland and those who we are currently welcoming to our shores.”

There was a poignant moment before proceedings began when Gerasko met her Polish counterpart Anna Sochanska in an anteroom. They talked quietly to each other, holding hands as they spoke.

The Irish Red Cross will administer the funds and its chairman, former minister Pat Carey, was in attendance along with the president of the Irish League of Credit Unions, Helene McManus. She launched a new grassroots fundraising drive for credit union members across Ireland who want to donate to the appeal.

It was quiet occasion. Gerasko addressed the gathering – exhausted, emotional, but so very strong.

Eoghan Murphy’s disarming qualities

Quick, somebody call Murph.

He mightn’t have been the best minister for housing the country has seen (although it’s a very crowded field), but nuclear disarmament expert Eoghan Murphy’s particular skill set is very relevant in these dangerous times.

The former TD for Dublin Bay South was promoted to cabinet by Leo Varadkar when he became taoiseach in 2017, but Murphy had a turbulent time in office. He returned to the backbenches after the 2020 election and sensationally quit the Dáil last April.

He said at the time he was resigning his seat “not to leave politics entirely, but to pursue a career in the area of international co-operation, human rights and democracy”.

Before he went into politics, Varadkar loyalist Murphy worked for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation in Vienna and at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. After he jumped ship – Fine Gael lost his seat in the subsequent byelection to now Labour Party leadership favourite Ivana Bacik – he went to work for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), heading up election observation missions.

Last reported sightings of Murph were in Uzbekistan and Armenia.

Dublin Bay South’s lively Fine Gael ghetto is awash with talk of how former minister Murphy has not been pressed into action by the Government to utilise his undoubted expertise in international arms control. We presume close pal Leo has been in touch for advice.

FF duo’s secret mission

The communications system crashed in Leinster House on Wednesday, with alarmed TDs and Senators reporting they could no longer use phones and email. Politicians immediately suspected Russian interference.

Some wondered if it was an act of reprisal following that daring cross-border mission into Ukraine at the weekend by two of Fianna Fáil’s finest (MEP Billy Kelleher and Senator Timmy Dooley). However, this was not retaliation for Bimmy and Tilly’s courageous incursion – it was just a power cut.

The last thing viewers expected to see on the nine o’clock news on Sunday night was the pair of them holding forth to reporter Paul Cunningham from a floodlit crossing on the Polish-Ukrainian border. It came as a surprise to the RTÉ man too, who had been filming elsewhere when he got word earlier in the day that Bimmy and Tilly (bosom buddies back in their Dáil days) were on their way back to the Medyka crossing having met political leaders in Lviv.

The two Fianna Fáil stalwarts embarked on their mission without informing party leader Micheál Martin as they were essentially on ALDE business

The Irish politicians were transported to and from the border by Ukrainian colleagues who were able to bypass the 20km-long traffic tailback on the Ukraine side. Senator Dooley is vice-president of the EU political grouping ALDE and he explained they had been invited by president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Ukrainian People’s Party.

Cunningham asked why they couldn’t have met remotely rather than undertaking the journey to Lviv. “I think that showed we were really serious about helping them. They invited us. They wanted us to come. I think from their perspective it showed that we were committed to working with them,” he replied.

The two Fianna Fáil stalwarts embarked on their mission without informing party leader Micheál Martin as they were essentially on ALDE business.

The episode wasn’t exactly met with universal acclaim in Leinster House, where certain politicians just couldn’t resist the obvious riposte when asked about our intrepid duo’s brief fact-finding foray into the war-torn country.

“Have they not suffered enough?”

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