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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 12th February

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by Aiken PR

12/02/2021

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

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 12th February…

‘Making poor solutions work well’

The ramifications of the EU’s move to unilaterally impose article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol a couple of weeks continue to reverberate. Or might that be a hard Brexit continues to prove difficult to implement without also levying substantial levels of additional bureaucracy. Either way, the substantial lack of trust between London and Brussels, Belfast and London (and Brussels) and anger from Dublin at London and Brussels has added to the already sizeable administrative difficulties in implementing the protocol successfully.

Representatives from the UK and EU met in London on Thursday this week in talks described as “frank but constructive”. Though repeated statements of good will and collaborative working can become quite grating, such a sentiment was by no means guaranteed after the EU’s recent actions and those of the UK last year, with the UK Internal Market Bill one example. Some businesses have managed to cope with the changes with substantial planning ahead of time and others see Northern Ireland’s dual market access as a potential selling point. For the remainder, it’s not hard to see that the very minimal notice of new systems, not helped by vague and sometimes misleading statements from ministers, was going to cause difficulties. The President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union said this week that GB–NI trade under the Protocol is “neither completely unfettered not free” but could be made to work through “good will”, a thought many might share. The UK can show goodwill by speeding up the sharing of data while the EU can move to simplify processes and acknowledge the very unique situation in Northern Ireland. Most importantly for all concerned, there is no alternative and the imperative to make the agreement work is paramount.

Opponents of the DUP have argued they have failed to take lessons from recent times by using the latest furore to push for the maximalist position of disposing of the protocol entirely. The First Minister has been in a struggle for some time with the more hard–line elements in her own party and there is now a perception in London that she is pivoting under threat from the TUV. Now, the TUV are not to the DUP what the DUP were to the UUP, but there are real choices to be made that will have profound effects for the future of Unionism in Northern Ireland. Former First Minister Peter Robinson set them out partially, arguing that you cannot argue for the abandonment of the protocol while at the same time implementing it. In fact, a more pragmatic approach could provide a progressive and positive outcome, politically as well as in reality. That’s because, when it comes to solutions and understanding at the EU–UK table, there is as much ignorance in Brussels as there is anywhere else. Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus MEP addressed an empty chair this week in Brussels, ironically, though not intentionally, asking about Northern Ireland’s democratic deficit in the EU. The question had been levelled at the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, though she had left the chair to give interviews instead. Even after she returned, von der Leyen still did not address the issue. Solutions, not new problems, are necessary. Delivering those can have electoral benefits too.

Elsewhere, the Finance Minister Conor Murphy enjoyed a short tit for tat with Viscount Younger, a Government Whip in the House of Lords. The Finance Minister wrote to the Conservative peer requesting that he correct the record following a statement which said additional funding for Northern Ireland, received from the Treasury, should allow the Executive to afford the victims’ pension. Younger responded, rejecting the request, saying adequate resources remained available. Unfortunately, what in isolation can be viewed as a typical spat between central and devolved government, the issue in question, though perhaps typical of politics in Northern Ireland, is not a laughing matter. Sadly, though this exchange of letters was brief, the stand–off between Belfast and London over who should fund the pensions has been long running. Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal has now ruled that the Executive is under a legal duty to fund a pension for people badly injured in the Troubles. For the time being, neither the Executive nor the Northern Ireland Office appear willing to move past the present difficulties and deliver a solution.  

In ROI, Taoiseach Micheál Martin had said this week that he was “amused” by the speculation around any potential trip and that if he was invited, he would go. However, the White House has said it has held ‘limited’ public events during the Presidency of Joe Biden and has declined to say whether there is an invite for the Taoiseach to attend this St Patrick’s Day. Plans are now being put in place to mark the occasion virtually. The Taoiseach also said the Government is looking at a continuation of a high level of restrictions to the Easter period. The Government is revising the Living with Covid Plan, with the week commencing 20 February slated to bring new clarity.

NI

Health

  • Northern Ireland’s Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) has recorded a fall of 11 Covid–19–related deaths on the previous week’s toll of 137. It is also the second time the number has fallen since the record high of 182 reported on 22 January. It brings the agency’s total of coronavirus–related registered deaths to 2,574.
  • Covid–19 restrictions will not be fully lifted in Northern Ireland until 70 to 80% of people have been vaccinated, the chief medical officer has said. At present, about 22% of adults have received at least a first dose of a vaccine. Dr Michael McBride said he believed some restrictions could be in place “into next year”.

Politics

  • Sinn Féin has criticised plans by the Electoral Office to carry out a review of Northern Ireland’s electoral register this summer. The canvassing of households is legally required to update voter details, but was delayed last year due to the pandemic.

Brexit

  • The UK and the EU have had a “frank but constructive discussion” on problems implementing post–Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland. Both sides reiterated their “full commitment” to the so–called Northern Ireland Protocol.
  • A Stormont investigation is to take place into the suspension of checks at post–Brexit border posts in Northern Ireland. The Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended physical checks at Larne and Belfast ports amid security concerns.
  • Northern Ireland firms increased their prices last month at the highest rate since 2018, according to an Ulster Bank survey. It says firms saw their costs rise at the highest rate in the UK, largely as a result of higher shipping costs.

Energy

  • Plans to close the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and compensate participants have been set out by the Stormont executive. It will cost £68m to buy out the 1,200 businesses in the non–domestic scheme.

Manufacturing

  • More than a quarter of Northern Ireland manufacturing firms felt a significant negative impact from the NI Protocol in its first month, a survey suggests. The biggest problem identified in the first month was GB suppliers being unprepared for the new requirements. Manufacturing NI surveyed 355 firms last week.

Motor

  • MoT exemptions have been extended for some vehicle groups in Northern Ireland for a further four months. Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said she wants to ensure “customers can legally keep their vehicles on the road for their essential journeys”.

Education

  • The Department of Health did not support a proposal to vaccinate all special school staff against Covid–19, according to the education minister. Peter Weir said the executive had been “reluctant” to hold a vote on the plan.

Employment Support

  • The Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland has called on Stormont to use money it has not allocated yet for a new scheme to help protect the jobs of people on furlough. Almost 95,000 people in NI are on furlough, according to HMRC figures.

ROI

Health

  • CEO of the Health Service Executive Paul Reid has said there are “continuing good trends” in relation to the number of cases of Covid–19 but Ireland is still “very high risk” in relation to the level of transmission in the community.

Vaccine

  • The HSE’s Chief Clinical Officer has defended the pace of the vaccination roll–out plan in Ireland, saying they are “dishing it out as soon as we can get it in”.

Insurance

  • The Governor of the Central Bank, Gabriel Makhlouf, has sent a strong message to insurance companies involved in disputes with customers over business disruption policies. Speaking remotely to the European Financial Forum, organised by the Financial Times in partnership with IDA Ireland, the Governor said studies published by the bank had made clear “cases where valid cover exists.”

Brexit

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said she “deeply regrets” mistakes that were made in the Commission’s move to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol on 29 January.

Trade

  • Ireland is in breach of the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations (IHR) on contagious disease control by failing to designate a ‘competent authority’ at its ports and airports

Construction

  • The Director General of the Construction Industry Federation has said he does not accept that construction should not reopen fully by 8 March and he hopes that common sense will prevail.

Travel

  • An additional 18 states have been added to the Government’s coronavirus ‘high–risk’ list of countries. Angola, Austria, Botswana, Burundi, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Eswatini, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, United Arab Emirates, Zambia, Zimbabwe have been added to the list.
  • The Government is seeking to increase fines for non–essential international travel from €500 to €2,000.
  • Irish airlines could suffer a fatal blow if they lose out on a second consecutive summer season, after a year of almost zero revenue and inadequate financial support from the Government, the Irish Airline Pilots Association has said.

Education

  • Almost 3,000 secondary school students look set to return to their classrooms on Monday 22 February after a deal was agreed between teacher and SNA trade unions and the Department of Education.

Events

  • Businesses operating in the events, exhibitions and trade show sectors have expressed their disappointment at a new Government scheme designed to help them survive through the pandemic. Announced on Tuesday, the Covid–19 Business Aid Scheme will offer firms whose turnover has fallen at least 75% due to Covid–19 restrictions grants of up to €8,000. Representative organisations for these so–called “orphaned” firms say the scheme is totally inadequate and will not make a significant difference.