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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 5th February

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by Aiken PR

05/02/2021

A weekly round–up of the latest news relating to Covid–19 and Brexit, and the issues affecting our clients

Last week’s digest focused in part on the differing strategies taken by the UK and EU in terms of vaccine procurement. The final thought as I finished the note was who would end up being shown to have taken the right course of action in the months to come. That belied what was to come hours later as the EU moved to unilaterally trigger the safeguard clause in the Northern Ireland protocol, before wisely backing down. However, the breach was already made whether or not the safeguard was triggered and has led to some rather predictable outcomes, including fanning the flames of the DUP who are demanding the Prime Minister to “be the Unionist” they need. Bonnie Tyler it was not. Still, the fiasco may yet lead to a positive outcome as all sides look again at the workings of the protocol.

What we know at this stage is that the protocol will not be scrapped anytime soon, despite what the DUP might hope and call for. Instead, Michael Gove the UK Cabinet Office Minister has called for an 18–month extension of grace periods while Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice–president, pushed back calling for a focus on “proper implementation”. Similarly, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said this week that there is “not going to be very dramatic change.” The words of Coveney and his colleagues matter, showing ably on Friday how Irish soft power can influence decision making in Brussels, and quickly at that. So Coveney’s comments on Twitter, commending a piece from London and Brussels think tank, the Centre for European Reform, which encouraged a more cooperative approach from the EU and UK in making the protocol work, are positive.

The paper in question notes that the situation in Northern Ireland has not been at the front of the Commission’s mind – a charge also laid fairly in London – but sets out a shopping list of flexibilities that could allow the protocol to work more efficiently. Two such options include extending the grace period for supermarkets bringing products of animal origin into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Should they be allowed to do so without export health certificate, for as long as UK food hygiene rules stay in lockstep and consideration of permanent derogations specific to the island of Ireland, allowing for chilled meat products, seed potatoes, soil and the like to be imported without hassle from Great Britain. Though the UK also has much to do to work better with the EU, there are opportunities in which they can do so without either capitulating to unrealistic DUP demands or demanding all participants simply hold their nose and carry on.

The question – not dissimilar to the various routes through last year’s negotiations – is whether they are to take them. Given the lack of trust, diminished further still last week, it’s hardly surprising that already some analysts have begun to question whether the present frictions we are seeing between both parties are a sign of things to come rather than a passing fad.

If that was an outcome of clarifying minds, the rising tensions have led also to less productive outcomes. A masked Loyalist gang in East Belfast, caught on camera while en route to an attack, but ultimately foiled by the police, could hardly have come at a worse time in terms of undermining public confidence. Similarly, Anne Donaghy, Chief Executive of Mid and East Antrim Council, and outgoing Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots withdrawing staff from Belfast and Larne ports after suggesting threats were linked to Loyalist paramilitaries, would understandably cause further reason for concern. Yet, the assessment from police that Loyalist paramilitaries were not involved and that there was no evidence that car registrations of staff were being gathered nor anything to suggest an attack on anyone was imminent has understandably prompted questions. Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan said the decision had created “political furore” and he was still unclear who had provided the information which influenced the move. Though Loyalist paramilitaries do not move as one and splinter activities are possible, the assessment of the police will provide a political opportunity for Sinn Féin on an issue that has become a proxy for the larger constitutional question. The First Minister’s fiery interview on BBC NI’s The View, where she was challenged on several past comments, was yet further evidence of the polarising effect of the border in the Irish Sea upon political discourse.  

Ireland, which would suffer severe fallout from a breakdown in EU–UK relations, signalled support for “sensible, common sense modifications” to the operation of the protocol. “It does need some changes,” Micheál Martin said this week. Politicos in Dublin are reported to be still smarting after last Friday’s debacle with one headline suggesting relations with Brussels had plummeted to “freezing”. The Taoiseach, normally mild mannered on the EU, reportedly told a party meeting that the Commission had blindsided Ireland and caused “political mayhem” while another attendee questioned why Mairéad McGuinness had not been aware of the move. Meanwhile, new rules on mandatory quarantining in a person’s own home came into force, but laws that would see those who do not produce negative Covid–19 tests or are coming from high–risk countries sent to hotels are still weeks away. Calls from the Opposition to go further and bring in mandatory hotel restrictions for all incoming air passengers have been resisted by the coalition. 

All in all, we are left with many unknowns, lots of questions and few answers. It’s enough to make you reach for the schnapps but then again, after last Friday, better not.

NI

Health

  • There has been a fall in the weekly number of Covid–19–related deaths registered in Northern Ireland, the NI statistics agency has said. There were 137 deaths registered in Northern Ireland in the week up to Friday 29 January. That is down 45 on the previous week’s record high of 182.

Vaccine

  • Almost a quarter of a million doses of Covid–19 vaccines have been administered in Northern Ireland. Health Minister Robin Swann told the NI Assembly that as of Sunday, 246,421 vaccines had been administered. Of those, 221,809 were first doses and 24,612 were second doses.

Brexit

  • The government has announced new processes aimed at easing problems with mixed loads of food products moving from GB to NI. That type of haulage, known as groupage, has seen major disruption due to the new Irish Sea border. The new processes are focused on security sealing individual pallets carried as part of a groupage load.

Politics

  • New laws to tighten rules on how special advisers (spads) at Stormont operate have passed their final legislative hurdle. Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister had proposed the Functioning of Government bill.
  • Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) minister Edwin Poots has stepped down from the executive to undergo surgery for a cancer diagnosis. He temporarily resigned the post of minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs on Monday evening. East Antrim MLA Gordon Lyons has been appointed as his replacement.

Education

  • Students in Northern Ireland are to get a £500 payment from the Stormont Executive due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The scheme, from Economy Minister Diane Dodds, is part of a wider support package costing £37.7m.
  • A full return to school by all pupils “may not be possible for some time”, one of NI’s teaching unions has said. The National Education Union’s (NEU) Education Recovery Plan said new coronavirus variants would limit how many children could attend school.

Alcohol and Licensing Laws

  • Easter holidays could be “overrun” by alcohol misuse if licensing laws are changed, a clergyman has warned. Rev David Clements told MLAs Christmas had been “overrun” by alcohol and said it would be a shame if Easter followed suit.
  • The number of alcohol deaths NI reached a record high in 2019, according to official figures. Data released on Tuesday by Statistics agency Nisra showed there were 336 alcohol–related deaths in 2019, the most recent year statistics are available for.

ROI

Health

  • The National Public Health Emergency Team has said that despite initial concern around a possible plateauing of Covid–19 case numbers, there continues to be an overall strong decline in the rate of the virus. 

Vaccine

  • European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has hailed the success of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, and said he hopes it could be certified for use in the bloc.
  • Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the first batches of AstraZeneca will start arriving this weekend, starting with an initial 21,600 doses. 
  • The Health Service Executive has said that almost 220,000 Covid–19 vaccine doses have been administered. For the last week, a total of 51,200 vaccinations were completed, with 44,900 administered in acute hospitals, with 1,500 people receiving a first dose and 43,400 receiving their second shot.

Housing

  • There was a big increase in the number of housing projects completed in the final three months of last year, new Central Statistics Office figures show. That push brought the number of new dwellings last year close to the number completed in 2019, the CSO said.

Employment

  • The Covid–adjusted rate of unemployment rose to 25% in January, up from 19.4% in December, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office. The CSO said that the traditional measure of unemployment remained unchanged at 5.8% last month.

Economy

  • Euro zone retail sales rebounded more than expected in December as Christmas shopping for clothes and shoes caused a surge in sales compared to November. The European Union’s statistics office Eurostat said retail sales in the 19 countries sharing the euro rose 2% month–on–month in December, beating consensus forecasts in a Reuters poll of a 1.6% increase.

Retail

  • Consumer spending in Dublin fell by 4.8% in the final quarter of last year, according to the latest report produced on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities. The latest MasterCard SpendingPulse report reveals that while spending on necessities remained stable, other areas dropped as a result of non–essential retail closing in November.

Hospitality

  • The High Court has ruled that four pub owners are entitled to be compensated by FBD Insurance for the disruption their businesses suffered due to the Covid–19 pandemic. In a landmark decision, the outcome of which affects claims made by more than 1,000 Irish pubs and restaurants, the judge found that a policy sold by FBD covered losses the pubs sustained by having to close due to the global health emergency.

Policing

  • Gardaí have said more than 4,500 people have been fined for breaches of Covid–19 restrictions – of which 3,500 were for non–essential travel.