The Chances of an Island-Wide Victory over Covid-19

Dan Byrne

18th June 2020


Ireland has the chance to deploy a unique defence against the global pandemic, and politics may be the only thing preventing its full use.

Analogies in other parts of the world point to the idea that a quick and effective way to wipe an island free of Covid cases could be, simply, a combination of geography and strict border control. No one enters unless border officials are sure they can do so safely. 

Ireland, however, has an international border running right through it, which remains open three months into the crisis, and with a combined north-south total of 30,000 cases. 

The border’s openness is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, but it has never been tested by a pandemic quite like this.

This link creates a complex Venn diagram of five connected jurisdictions with their own Covid-19 lockdown policies. Scotland, England and Wales are all at different points in their quarantine exit plan. International arrivals to these countries must isolate for fourteen days, but not if travelling from Ireland. Meanwhile, arrivals to the Republic must isolate for fourteen days, even if they’re travelling from Britain, but those coming from Northern Ireland are exempt. 

In such a way, the Irish border becomes the ‘back door’ through which the entire island is more vulnerable. Particularly, given that the ‘back door’ connects it to the country with the most deaths, and second most confirmed cases, in Europe.

United in a containment plan, the Republic and Northern Ireland could use their natural sea-buffer to swiftly finish off the first wave of the virus, and easily prevent a second wave in future. 

This is supported by island-based societies elsewhere, which have strict quarantine measures employed, even for arrivals from their own nations. 

In Hawai’i (pop. 1.4m), new cases are minimal – averaging between one and two since 22nd May, with no new deaths since 19th April and 647 cases in total. In Taiwan (23.7m), case numbers have halted at just 443, with seven deaths. And in the Canadian Province of Prince Edward Island (143,000), only 27 people contracted the virus. All have recovered, with no deaths. 

New Zealand (pop. 5m) is a country similar to the island of Ireland in both population (6.5m) and infrastructure. It is perhaps the best example of island quarantine success so far.

The country was able to declare itself Covid-free on 8th June. Two individuals arriving from London have tested positive since, but the government has closely traced the pair’s movements both before and after their arrival. Anyone thought to have been in contact with them is to be tested.

It would appear that island geography is an advantage when tackling coronavirus. But Ireland is divided in a unique way. Would the all-island approach be workable here?


“The border’s openness is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, but it has never been tested by a pandemic quite like this

For healthcare systems, there is hope. Neither the Republic’s HSE nor the North’s HSC are currently overwhelmed by case numbers and instead, appear to be past their peaks. Both governments have signed a memorandum of understanding for increased cooperation in reporting and quarantine procedures. While featuring many differences, the groundwork for healthcare cooperation is already there. 

For border communities themselves, an island-wide response is very workable, even necessary.  

The border invisibly meanders through villages, towns and farmlands. At least 30,000 people (possibly much more) cross it daily under normal circumstances, many for business reasons. As was the case in Brexit negotiations, lockdown differences on either side would impact them far more than lockdown differences between the islands of Ireland and Britain.  

The economic impact of an all-island response would be significant. Just as with New Zealand, if officials can verify that an entire island is Covid-free, then economic activity can resume unrestricted. 

But then there’s the political issue. Unionist politicians, particularly the DUP, would have to decide whether they want to extend their cooperation with the Irish government.

The DUP have become renowned for their opposition to working with Dublin over London in recent years. Their red line with Brexit has been: no checks carried out on people and goods travelling from one part of the UK to another. It’s a matter of principle as much as it is of logistics. 

Should border checks for pandemic reasons be included in this principle? Both Hawai’i and Prince Edward Island, integral parts of the US and Canada respectively, are enforcing regulations strict enough to mean Americans and Canadians face barriers when travelling inside their own country. Would these examples convince unionists?

Indeed, the DUP stood alongside Sinn Féin in noting that they were given little warning of the Irish government’s lockdown plans before they were officially announced, suggesting they do appreciate the value of close communication with the Republic. 

As of June 2020, the first wave appears to be ending. Lockdowns are easing across the north and south, even though they had different approaches. Attention is now turning to the dreaded second wave. 

The value of an all-island response is evident; the only issue is whether it’s compatible with the uniquely Irish political system and the history which underlines it. 

So far unionists, however open to close communication with the Republic they appear, remain committed to a Northern Ireland-based approach. Depending on the scale of a second wave, this game-plan could be tested.



Featured photo by David Liuzzo



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