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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 23rd April

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 23rd April Banner

by Aiken PR

23/04/2021

Many will be off to the hairdressers and barbers today and this weekend for a well–earned tidy up…

The end of another week and to celebrate, many will be off to the hairdressers and barbers today and this weekend for a well–earned tidy up. However, I am happy to admit right now that I will not be among them. The experience of making awkward conversation while someone drives a set of mechanised cutters into my head over and over has never appealed. With the many long locks that are bouncing their way down to the chair this weekend, having to queue excessively for such a dreaded experience is too much. Yes, First Minister, deputy First Minister, fill your boots. 

Turning first this week to the ongoing response to Covid–19 and the Executive further ran roughshod over its meticulously planned but data absent plan to ease lockdown this week as the First and deputy First Minister suggest further easings could be faster than expected. Which is faster than last week, which in turn was faster than before. I trust you follow. Perhaps there is good reason for optimism, though the 7–day rolling average of new positive cases is slightly up, the reproduction number is down. And, while not looking for excuses, it is thought that the slight increase in new positive cases is driven partly by the return of schools and the rollout of testing for close contacts. It is still a troubling and complex situation with few straightforward options. However, the Executive does appear to have shifted tone, favouring a more positive stance with greater easings more quickly. What will undoubtedly be forefront of their mind is creating a rush back to any of the locked down sectors that might drive up infections that could count against the health system come the ‘flu season’ later in the year.

Legacy investigations were back front and centre following the resignation of UK veterans’ minister, Johnny Mercer. The former minister quit government, or rather was pre–emptively sacked after he indicated to No.10 that he intended to resign at the Despatch Box following the passage of the Overseas Operations Bill. The legislation had received considerable criticism and was amended in the House of Lords to include clauses that would exclude torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from curbs on prosecutions of British troops serving overseas. The Ministry of Defence accepted the changes, while disputing that anything in the original bill would prevent lawbreakers from being prosecuted. However, Mercer was no longer in post by the time the legislation returned to the Commons, instead launching a media broadside against the Government for generally being liars and failing to implement similar legislation for Northern Ireland veterans. This particular legislation was never going to focus on Northern Ireland, the title being the main giveaway. That’s unless the UK government has made a very substantial but very hushed change in policy. His successor, Leo Docherty, has since promised ex–soldiers who served in Northern Ireland the “protection” they deserved, though enquiries suggest a timeline for this, under the discretion of the NIO, is not in place. Vague assertions on forthcoming legislation have been suggest for some time. Nonetheless, it seems clear that the UK government does not exactly share the strong opinions of the former veterans’ minister or the need to move at haste, potentially creating further issues. For political stability in Northern Ireland, that must be a good thing. However, the issue remains live and liable to cause substantial uncertainty in the future as similar focus points arise. How Northern Ireland deals with its past, and how much it continues to affect its future are large and unresolved questions. Answers focusing only on part of the issue and delivered from London by diktat are unlikely to herald substantial breakthroughs.   

Sinn Féin has become embroiled in a data spat south of the border. The party’s internal voter database, Abú, has become a source of controversy after it was said to record details about individual voters including their expected level of support for the party, with the data held in Germany. The ROI data protection commissioner (DPC) wrote to Sinn Féin this week with questions about the database and is reported to be undertaking ongoing engagement with the party over the issue. The issue, though gaining publicity first in ROI, has now attracted the attention of the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who have committed to making inquiries on the matter. The party insist they are compliant with data protection legislation, though various elected figures declined to answer questions on the subject before party leader Mary Lou McDonald confirmed the data was held in Germany. Sinn Féin argue not only are they in line with legislation, but also broader political practices in having a national database on voters’ voting intentions. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael do not have national databases and Sinn Féin has since conceded they have been in breach of at least two data protection requirements. Combined with stories like Sinn Fein’s main Facebook page and Michelle O’Neill’s page being managed by people based in Serbia, it has given succour to opponents about the party’s social media practices. Leo Varadkar made his view clear this week, saying “anyone can see there is something fishy about Sinn Fein’s social media activities” and that there was “something not right about it all”. That’s as maybe, but the final judgement won’t be up to him and on the subject of complicated data regulations, political opponents will need clear findings of wrongdoing from the regulators if they are to extract a political cost from McDonald and her party. In the meantime, critics and journalists reporting on the subject have received first–hand examples of Sinn Féin’s online supporter base as users rode quickly and adamantly to the party’s defence.

NI

Health

  • The number of Covid–19 related deaths registered in Northern Ireland has risen. The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) found the virus was mentioned on the deaths certificates of 16 people, in the week to 16 April. That is seven more than the previous week.
  • Nursing and midwifery training places in Northern Ireland are to be maintained at the record level they reached last year. Health Minister Robin Swann has announced there will be more than 1,300 pre–registration places available this year at Northern Ireland universities.

Business Supports

  • Applications have opened for a new £50,000 grant aimed at helping larger businesses affected by the pandemic. It is expected to help over 1,100 businesses across a range of sectors including retail, childcare and manufacturing. To be eligible, a business must occupy a large commercial premises with a net annual value of over £51,000 and have qualified for 12 months rates holiday.

Energy

  • Retrofitting properties to improve energy efficiency will have a huge economic benefit, the new CEO of the Housing Executive has said. It could cost more than £9bn to improve the efficiency of private and public homes, she said, citing a report. Ms Long also said the organisation will play a critical role in helping government to meet net zero carbon targets.

Communities

  • More than 31,000 food parcels were provided to children in Northern Ireland between April 2020 and March 2021, according to the UK’s largest food bank network. The Trussell Trust charity said it provided 78,827 parcels in total to children and adults last year. That is a 75% rise on 2019–20 figures.

Licensing Laws

  • Changes to Northern Ireland’s licensing laws could cost police £7m in overtime, a Stormont committee has been told. The figure is contained in a letter sent to politicians examining a bill for reforming licensing laws. Police said changes to shift patterns would have to meet EU working rules.

Politics

  • Independent unionist Ian Marshall has failed in his by–election bid for a seat in the Seanad. The County Armagh man, a former Ulster Farmers’ Union president, lost to Fine Gael’s Maria Byrne.

Agriculture 

  • A review has been ordered into Northern Ireland’s key agri–food sector, with its recommendations potentially influential for future policy. The sector generates sales of about £5bn a year and supports 100,000 jobs. The agriculture and economy ministers have asked that the challenges and opportunities are looked at.

Brexit

  • A council chief executive was “advised” by three DUP MPs to write a letter to the UK government about her NI Protocol concerns, it has emerged. Mid and East Antrim Borough Council chief Anne Donaghy was involved in the decision to withdraw Brexit checks staff from Larne port in February.
  • A New Zealand–type agri–food agreement between the UK and EU would be “really helpful” for reducing Irish Sea border checks, MPs have been told. The comment was made by Shanker Singham, a member of the government–backed consortium which helps firms trade across the sea border.

ROI

Covid

  • The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise has said the updated reopening plan to be announced by the Government next week will likely include the reinstatement of click and collect, non–essential retail, the rest of construction and personal services from May. Robert Troy said the plan will also include a roadmap for the reopening of hotels and the hospitality sector from the end of May and beginning of June.
  • The EU Commission said legal action has not been commenced against the AstraZeneca company, even though Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly told the Dáil this afternoon that a “legal case has been initiated” regarding the company’s failure to meet its contractual agreements on Covid–19 vaccines.
  • Europe’s drug regulator has reiterated that benefits of AstraZeneca’s Covid–19 vaccine outweigh any risks. The renewed backing is part of a detailed guidance from ongoing reviews into rare blood clots to help individual nations determine the shot’s use.
  • Ryanair has described the use of mandatory hotel quarantine for certain EU countries as “defective” and has called for the Taoiseach to scrap it.

Economy

  • Spending so far this month has been up sharply on April 2020, according to the latest debit and credit card statistics from the Central Bank. Spending this month up to April 18 was €1.1 billion or 45% higher than over the same period last year reflecting the exceptionally low levels of expenditure during the first Covid–19 lockdown.
  • The euro zone’s recovery from the pandemic–induced economic downturn was much stronger than expected in April. The bloc’s dominant service industry shrugged off renewed lockdowns and made a surprise return to growth.

Agri–Business

  • Ornua, the country’s biggest exporter of dairy products and maker of Kerrygold, has reported a 69% increase in operating profit for last year to €83.1m. Group turnover for the year rose by 0.9% to reach €2.3 billion.
  • The Government’s draft Agri–Food Strategy for 2030 is proposing a 10% cut in biogenic methane emissions from farming but does not say whether livestock numbers should rise, fall or stay at current levels. The Department of Agriculture published the strategy on its website and is inviting submissions from the public and interested parties as part of a consultation process which runs until 15 June

Technology

  • Plans have been unveiled for the expansion of Galway Technology Centre, a move which is expected to lead to the creation of thousands of jobs in the West over the coming years. The office space for start–ups in Galway city was established 25 years ago, and so far, has helped over 300 businesses to scale and grow.

Employee Relations

  • ESB Networks has described as “unlawful” a 24–hour strike by some network technicians belonging to the Independent Workers Union. The company said it plans to take legal action over the strike, which started this morning.

Politics 

  • Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said that the party has appointed a data protection officer following correspondence with a State watchdog over past week. Her comments come following continuing political controversy over the party’s handling of a database with details of voters.
  • A new poll has suggested that people in Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the UK if a referendum was called in the present day. Of those surveyed, 49 per cent said they would vote to stay in the UK while 43pc would support a united Ireland. The remainder were undecided. The Lucid Talk poll, which had a sample size of 2,845 and a 2.5pc margin of error, was conducted for BBC NI’s Spotlight programme over April 5–7.

Sport

  • A Fianna Fáil TD has called for antigen testing to allow a Leinster rugby match to go ahead with spectators next month. Jim O’Callaghan said fans should be tested to allow 2,000 spectators to attend Leinster versus Ulster at the RDS. The match is to be held on May 14, and Leinster Rugby wants to admit spectators who test negative in the hours before the game as a trial run for the future.