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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 19th March

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 19th March Banner

by Aiken PR

19/03/2021

Saturday night’s alright for fighting (or any other night).

Bloodlands came to a shocking conclusion this week. After four episodes and a lesson on Occam’s razor, the programme shocked the world with the news it had been commissioned for a second series. Perhaps, if series two manages to uncover the whereabouts of Emma Brannick, how Tom ‘Goliath’ Brannick seems to have inherited the luck of another of James Nesbitt’s characters, Lucky Man’s Harry Clayton, and resolves a number of other fairly looming plot holes, we might also uncover a pot of missing vaccines. One can hope.


Old divisions were well maintained this week as Sinn Féin vetoed Unionist proposals for a stone depicting Northern Ireland with its county boundaries to permanently mark the date within the “curtilage of Parliament Buildings”. The party said it had opposed the stone because it “reflects only one political perspective”, though both the SDLP and Alliance supported it. Meanwhile, the UK government is to take unprecedented action to force Northern Ireland to speed up abortion services, using Parliament to give the secretary of state new powers amid concern many women are still being forced to seek help in England. New figures suggested that more than 100 women have still sought abortions in England from Northern Ireland, despite the risks of the pandemic, including those seeking later–term abortions for significant foetal complications or health risks. The DUP’s Westminster leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, warned that any move to legislate over the Executive “would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the government can make interventions in a devolved administration.” Northern Ireland’s attorney general is understood to have previously advised the Executive that commissioning abortion services could be regarded as a controversial matter under the terms of the ministerial code, which states issues that are “significant or controversial” must be brought to the Executive. Some parties had been calling on Health Minister Robin Swann to commission the services, though he has maintained the need for wider Executive approval. Brandon Lewis tweeted last week that he would “welcome a renewed focus on the NI Executive securing the abortion services that women and girls are legally and morally entitled to. We should all take our obligations on this issue incredibly seriously – it is a human right to be able to access quality healthcare.”

In London, by video link, and Lynas Foodservice told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that they have had to change 25 suppliers since the new year and one GB supplier is now charging an additional £150 per order to cover new administration costs. Andrew Lynas told MPs that if the UK were align with EU agrifood rules that would “go a long way” to solving the problems his business was experiencing. For the time being, this hurt seems to be fairly contained to businesses in Northern Ireland and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, consumers. However, as Hospitality Ulster’s Colin Neill noted, there was a concern among hospitality businesses about being able to get supplies from GB as lockdowns eased and demand increased across the UK. He suggested there was the possibility that one outcome could lead to higher costs and less choice. However, the political ramifications for the Prime Minister appear so far to be limited. While we have seen first hand the impact on some products on supermarket shelves, the UK as a whole still saw a drop in EU destined exports of over 40%.

It would therefore appear that we are left with an issue that is impacting little politically but impacting heavily onto businesses across the UK and consumers especially in Northern Ireland. Could a quiet solution be on the cards? Following the comments from the Foreign Secretary on Wednesday, that’s St. Patrick’s Day, it would appear not. Dominic Raab said it was the EU “trying to erect a barrier down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that is challenging the spirit of Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday agreement.” Though easier to pass over this with a sigh, the latest intervention from David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, who said unless Dublin and Brussels “return to honouring” the Good Friday Agreement, they would be “opening a Pandora’s box which leads to significant protest, to the bringing down of the Northern Ireland executive and then into a significant political crisis”. Though the PSNI said previously that they did not foresee any immediate threat of loyalist disorder or violence, such political disruption could prove incredibly damaging as businesses of all stripes await an easing of lockdown that offers a precious lifeline.

Long–simmering tensions over Ireland’s regulation of Big Tech have burst out into public after German officials attacked the Irish Data Protection Commission for failing to enforce the EU’s landmark data privacy law. The Irish regulator has been heavily criticised for its lack of teeth, having issued only one fine of €450,000 against Twitter in December 2020. On Wednesday, Ulrich Kelber, Germany’s chief data protection watchdog, wrote to members of the European Parliament to complain that Germany alone had “sent more than 50 complaints about WhatsApp” to the Irish authorities, “none of which had been closed to date”. The EU’s digital and competition chief wouldn’t be drawn on the criticism and said new EU rules, tabled last December under the Digital Services Act, allowing the Commission to step in and regulate Big Tech would help to restore trust between countries. Though Ireland is a committed friend of business, and the investment it brings, with the OECD and EU both looking intently at digital and corporate taxation, it might struggle to maintain so many fronts quite as successfully as it has done in the past. However, Ireland’s diplomatic corps in the US was recently heralded by the former UK ambassador to the US as one that “really packed a punch”. As these various threads are pulled over the coming months and years, it will need every ounce of diplomatic heft it can muster.

Please find the full update below.

NI


Health

• Almost 17,000 procedures, operations and diagnostic tests have been cancelled during the pandemic to date, the health minister has said. Robin Swann told the NI Assembly that between 17 March 2020 and 5 March 2021, 16,938 procedures, operations and diagnostic tests had been postponed.

Vaccine

• Health Minister Robin Swann says every adult in Northern Ireland will still get their first vaccine dose by the end of July. It follows an expected reduction in the UK’s Covid–19 vaccine supply.

Trade

• The Republic of Ireland imported almost €1bn (£856m) less of British goods in January compared with the same month in 2020. That represents a fall of 65%, with the decline of Great Britain food imports even steeper, down by 75%, according to Ireland’s Central Statistics Office.

Economy

• The NI economy likely shrank in the last quarter of 2020 as new lockdowns were imposed, official figures suggest. Output in the service sector, the largest segment of the private sector, was down by 5% compared to the previous quarter.

Brexit

• The failure to bring in a promised cash–back scheme for companies hit by EU tariffs is “deeply disappointing”, a leading business body has said. The plan to reimburse Northern Ireland firms was outlined in May 2020. The Federation of Small Businesses said “It is deeply disappointing that nearly three months into the new trading arrangements there is still no duty rebate system in place.”

Energy

• Draft proposals for Northern Ireland’s first climate change bill will be brought to the Executive shortly. A Stormont scrutiny committee heard they would set a legally binding target of “at least” an 82% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They will also include interim targets, plans on how to achieve them and a reporting system to assess progress. The ambition is to have the bill passed by the end of the current Stormont term next year.

Infrastructure

• A huge road building project faces further delays following a critical report by a planning appeals body. The A5, estimated to cost £1.2bn, would connect Londonderry to the border at Aughnacloy and improve access to Dublin. Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon said she remains committed to progressing the scheme.

Civil Service

• A new process to find a permanent Head of the Civil Service in NI has begun, the Executive Office has confirmed. Last year, the first and deputy first ministers failed to fill the position following a round of interviews.

ROI


Health

• The rate of decrease in hospitalistions has stalled although there has been a “significant easing of pressure on the hospital system” due to the reduction in the number of people being treated for Covid–19, according to HSE Chief Executive Paul Reid.

Vaccine

• The European Medicines Agency has said the AstraZeneca Covid–19 vaccine is a safe and effective vaccine, but that it could not definitively rule out a connection between a risk of clotting and the vaccine.

• The European Commission has warned that it could restrict exports of Covid vaccines outside the EU if there is no reciprocal openness by other vaccine–producing countries when making vaccines available for Europeans.

• Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he hopes Ireland will be able to “catch–up fairly quickly” on its rollout of Covid–19 vaccine, despite having to pause the administration of the AstraZeneca products.

Economy

• Essential workers including those in retail, transport, cleaning and food service should receive a living wage with access to an occupational pension, according to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar.

Recovery

• The European Central Bank may need some time before the recently agreed acceleration in the pace of money printing becomes apparent, ECB President Christine Lagarde has said. The move is part of the ECB’s efforts to cushion the fallout of the Covid–19 pandemic.

Trade

• IDA Ireland is looking to expand its global footprint by establishing a presence in Israel. This follows the agency seeking expressions of interest from parties to appoint a business development consultant to be located in Israel.

Travel

• The European Union has announced a plan to set up a travel certificate to help restore freedom of movement within the bloc for citizens inoculated against the coronavirus. The certificate will show “whether the person has either been vaccinated, or has a recent negative test, or has recovered from Covid, and thus has antibodies,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Construction

• The initial shutdown of the construction sector for seven weeks during the initial stages of the Covid–19 pandemic knocked €2bn off construction output last year according to a report carried out by EY DKM on behalf of the Construction Industry Federation.