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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 16th April

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 16th April Banner

by Aiken PR

16/04/2021

One for me and one for the barkeep.

Deciding where to start this week’s digest has been a dilemma. Much has happened in the week that will have an immediate impact, some which will determine longer term policy making, and some which influence the wider political environment. It is positive that from 30 April, I will be able to return to my favoured way of supporting the local economy. However, it is slightly more notable, and dare I say emotion inducing, to recognise that for all those people on furlough due to restrictions on their employment sector, a glimmer of hope is now within touching distance. Many have sacrificed and lost during the pandemic, and that seems likely to continue for some time come. Yet, hopefully, there can now be a period of extended respite for many of the 100k+ workers in Northern Ireland who have sat out large parts of the year in what must have seemed an interminable wait.

Of course, the Executive certainly made them sweat for it. No such thing as a free lunch, I hear it cried from Stormont on the hill. Well, as long as you’re happy to ignore fairly large periods in Northern Ireland’s recent political history. Thursday began with what seemed like a fairly concerted pre–briefing effort on the latest easings. Specific details and dates were shared widely amongst Northern Ireland’s reporting cohort. With an announcement scheduled for 3pm, there seemed to a joined up communications effort to ensure clarity, understanding and reach of message. Sadly, old habits die hard. The Economy Minister, seemingly unaware of the plan briefed to journalists, launched a fairly public broadside against the Executive. The dates were not in line with her suggested approach and too restrictive on businesses. Hereby followed a period of silence interspersed with vague briefing that people were ‘receptive’ and something about cows, winter and fields. Finally, sometime between 5pm and 6pm, the First Minister and deputy First Minister delivered a statement to the Assembly on the latest restrictions. Openings were brought forward and it was later confirmed that many of the restrictive policies pressed on hospitality were to be dispensed with, such as substantial meals and pre–booking. Yes, I am happy. But it is also the case that we need to know how presumably carefully designed plans can be torn up in the course of a day.

Certainly, the view from ministers seems to be that it was the fault of civil servants and that ministers were thankfully able to step in and agree the final plans unanimously. If that were the case, and the decisive input of ministers brought policy to a satisfactory conclusion, why was it left so late? Why was it seemingly pre–briefed in detail? Why were ministers not engaged, at least at a high level, in the development of plans before they were finally presented for sign–off? If they were engaged, how were they bounced away so quickly? What happened to the reasoning behind the first proposals and what is the health and economic rationale behind what was finalised? For the time being, Diane Dodds has re–emerged as a friend of business, though there is a touch of a resemblance to the Theresa May submersion during the 2016 referendum. Nonetheless, Unionists, including the DUP, are facing an existential crisis. Standing up for political principles, beyond the routine, probably isn’t a bad place to start.

Discussions around the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol remain ongoing. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic met opposite number David Frost in Brussels yesterday evening to review progress and seek a way to dial down tensions that have contributed to violence on the streets here. While good will and commitment were expressed there, the identities of those organising the protests have led the intelligence services to fear the emergence of a new dissident loyalist organisation. David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, said that much of the violence which had taken place on the streets of Northern Ireland so far was being organised by unknown entities using social media. Long standing loyalist paramilitaries, the UDA and UVF, are said to have been involvedin trying to quell rioting in parts of Belfast. UDA members are reported to have stopped youths from attacking police officers at two separate riots last week. Despite this, the PSNI believe some small demonstrations may take place in the coming days. Messages were circulated on social media last night urging loyalists to attend impromptu protests. Political tensions are tightly wound, though the UK remains mainly focused on negotiations with the EU as opposed to the violence on the ground even if the Northern Ireland Secretary is meeting daily on the subject. The DUP meanwhile remain staunchly critical of the protocol, with Lord Dodds delivering a vehement critique of Sefcovic’s post–meeting statement, calling it “fantasy”. He also argued that the EU had “trampled all over the founding principles of the devolved settlement, including that of consent”. Regardless, there is no alternative to the protocol and while the EU and UK continue to work through solutions, political volatility and small scale violence continue to hang over us. The longer that potent cocktail is present, the greater the likelihood of more substantial trouble.  

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NI

 

Health

  • The number of weekly Covid–19–related deaths registered in Northern Ireland has fallen again. According to official data from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra), Covid–19 was mentioned on the death certificates of nine people in the week to last Friday. A decrease of three from the previous week.
  • The chief pharmaceutical officer has warned that without mitigation, the supply of medicines and medical devices into Northern Ireland would be considered a “very high risk area”.
  • Without significant and recurrent funding from the executive, it could take up to 10 years to tackle Northern Ireland’s current waiting lists. Health Minister Robin Swann told the Stormont assembly that too many people are waiting “too long for treatment”.

 

Politics

  • Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party have criticised the DUP for failing to take part in a meeting of ministers from Belfast and Dublin. The DUP is boycotting some North–South Ministerial Council (NSMC) meetings due to their opposition to post–Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

 

Brexit

  • The UK and the EU have said they will intensify talks on NI following a meeting of their chief negotiators. The UK Brexit Minister Lord Frost and EU Commission Vice–President Maros Sefcovic held discussions in Brussels on Thursday night.
  • Two key European Parliament committees have overwhelmingly approved the UK’s post–Brexit trade deal with the EU, bringing its ratification closer. MEPs are yet to vote on the trade deal in a full session. The deadline for that is the end of this month.
  • The timeframe for permanent facilities to operate the Irish Sea border has slipped by two years, a Stormont committee has been told. They are now not expected to be built before 2023.

 

Business Support

  • The Department of Finance has written to 480 businesses requesting the repayment of money issued under a Covid–19 grant scheme. Following a review, officials are seeking to recover £4.38m. A spokesperson said businesses could appeal the decision or apply for funding from different schemes.

 

Trade

  • Cross–border trade in Ireland has increased dramatically since the start of 2021, official data suggests. Ireland’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) suggests that in February the value of exports from NI to the Republic of Ireland almost doubled compared to the same month last year.
  • Trade between the UK and Ireland partially recovered in February, after a steep drop in January following Brexit. The value of UK exports to Ireland was up by 38% month–on–month from £1.13bn to £1.56bn. That is still down by more than 7% compared to February last year when exports were valued at £1.69bn.

 

Agriculture

  • The Northern Ireland farming industry saw its profit surge by 26% in real terms last year, rising from £342m to £456m, official figures suggest. Total turnover rose by 4% to £2.23bn while input costs increased marginally from to £1.55bn.

 

Climate

  • Not enough is being done to create resilient woodland that can help with the response to climate change, according to a report on the state of the UK’s trees. Northern Ireland has the lowest density of woodland in Europe and is well behind the UK average. Just 8% of land in Northern Ireland is forest, compared with 13% in Britain.

ROI

Politics

  • Sinn Féin has closed down the online portal for the party’s secret voter database, as a “precautionary security measure”. The decision comes as the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) sent a series of questions to Sinn Féin seeking information about the database containing the names and addresses of millions of Irish voters.
  • Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has insisted May Lou McDonald must urgently address questions about Sinn Féin’s social media activity and its internal voter database. Mr Varadkar said Ms McDonald has “gone very quiet” since it emerged the Data Protection Commissioner was seeking answers from the party and called on the Sinn Féin leader to face questions.

 

Health

  • Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the target of offering 80% of the adult population a first dose of a Covid–19 vaccine by the end of June remains on track. But he said meeting the target of vaccinating more than 800,000 people in April would be “challenging”.

 

Hospitality

  • Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said he is increasingly confident that indoor dining will be possible over the course of the summer. However, he added that he did not want to give false hope, adding that there would be no further detail revealed by the Government until the end of April.

 

Covid–19

  • The European Commission has said the Government should use “less restrictive” quarantine measures for citizens arriving from five EU member states and that there should be clear exemptions for essential travel to Ireland. The commission said it had written to the Government today asking the Irish authorities to clarify the criteria used to determine which EU countries faced mandatory hotel quarantine.
  • Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has confirmed that there will be an exemption to hotel quarantine for elite and professional athletes. But he added that governing bodies of elite sports would have to “put in place equivalent situations”.

Economy

  • The Government has formally authorised the Low Pay Commission to investigate how Ireland can move towards a living wage, and must report in the second half of this year. Last year’s Programme for Government committed to move the wages floor from the current national minimum wage of €10.20 per hour to a living wage “during the lifetime of this government”.
  • Over 400 financial firms in Britain have shifted activities, staff and a combined £1 trillion in assets to hubs in the European Union due to Brexit, with more pain to come, a study from New Financial think tank found. Dublin has emerged as the biggest beneficiary with 135 relocations, followed by Paris with 102, Luxembourg 95, Frankfurt 63, and Amsterdam 48.
  • The European Union’s imports from Britain almost halved in the first two months of the year following the UK exit from the EU single market, data showed today. The figures also showed that the 27–nation bloc’s trade surplus with Britain rose as exports fell by less.

 

Agriculture

  • Meat Industry Ireland has warned politicians that the sector will continue to depend on workers from abroad to meet labour requirements. Appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Phillip Carroll, chairperson of Meat Industry Ireland said that 80% of the workforce were Irish or from an EU country.

 

Finance

  • KBC Bank Ireland has announced that it is in discussions about the possible sale of its performing loan assets and liabilities to Bank of Ireland. KBC said the deal, if coupled with a separate sale of its non–performing mortgage loan portfolio, would ultimately result in the bank’s withdrawal from the Irish market.

Technology

  • An online privacy group is planning to lead a mass legal action by Facebook users against the social network, seeking compensation for the publication of their personal information online. Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) claims Facebook’s response to the recent appearance on the internet of names, phone numbers, email addresses, location data and biographical information of up to 533 million users, including many in Ireland, has been inadequate.

The EU would prefer a global deal on corporate taxation to its own digital levy. European economy and tax commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told reporters on Friday that “it’s a little bit too early to be so optimistic” about a global deal but that he hoped for one.