March 13, 2020 / 1:51 PM / 18 days ago

Northern Irish government split on coronavirus measures

BELFAST (Reuters) - Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland’s government called on Friday for the closure of schools to mirror measures across the border in the Republic of Ireland, putting them at odds with their pro-British power-sharing partners.

The spat comes as Britain takes a different approach to coronavirus to EU countries such as Ireland, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying it was premature to take measures like closing schools or banning large sporting events.

The pro-British DUP and Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein agreed in January to restore the British region’s devolved power-sharing government after a break of three years due to disagreements between the parties on Brexit and other issues.

Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, the region’s deputy first minister, said schools and colleges should be closed immediately to match a measure taken in the Republic of Ireland on Thursday.

“Now is the time to take action,” O’Neill told journalists. “It’s vital that we have a joined-up approach across the island.”

Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, head of the Democratic Unionist Party, told the BBC earlier on Friday that schools would be closed eventually but that the decision needed to be taken at the right time.

She said she agreed that the virus would not recognize borders, but said the decision to leave them open was based on “clear scientific advice” and that closing schools could force people to leave children with elderly relatives.

“We do listen to the science. I think all of your listeners would want us politicians to do that because once we take political decisions and not scientific decisions we are in a difficult place,” Foster told BBC radio.

Northern Ireland currently has 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 compared with 70 in the Republic of Ireland, where the population is around two and a half times bigger.

Reporting by Ian Graham; Writing by Conor Humphries, editing by Elizabeth Piper

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