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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 14th May, 2021

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by Aiken PR

14/05/2021

No Poots too big to fill… Well, nearly.

And so the die was cast, and it appears there is no Poots that are too big to fill for the DUP’s new leader… well, nearly. As many expected it was the Agriculture and Environment Minister Edwin Poots that was crowned leader of the DUP this evening, beating competitor Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17.

Though Donaldson cut a more modernising and appealing picture for some, as with his party colleague and competitor for the leadership, he is deeply conservative. Poots has, however, proven an effective minister, something that it appears will remain unchanged with him remaining in his current post, while appointing a First Minister on his behalf – the one shoe that doesn’t fit. The smart money is on Paul Givan for that. We shall see…. more on that next week. Back to today and it was Poots’ willingness to be firmer on issues where his predecessor Arlene Foster was considered weak that won the day and will also likely lead to more flashpoints, often on sectarian grounds. In terms of Brexit, Poots has tried to annoy the protocol in his role as Agriculture minister and will likely continue to do so. However, in reality, he has failed to have much effect, with his department carrying on hiring staff for the DUP–loathed border control posts. Poots also pulled out of another North South ministerial meeting this week. Under his leadership, good relations will not necessarily be a pre–requisite. Interestingly, Paula Bradley won out as the DUP’s deputy leader, putting one of the party’s most progressive MLA alongside a firm Paisleyite. It presents a more nuanced picture than one directed solely at moving to the right, though the contrast will undoubtedly provide working difficulties at a time when the party is seeking to solve its polling woes ahead of an election next year. However, if used effectively, it could allow the party to face both ways on issues to undecided voters turned off by the DUP’s conservatism and by the prospect of leaving the UK. The sign of change will be sooner rather than later.

It’s all happening in Northern Ireland this week, with David Frost in Belfast hearing first hand experiences of working within the parameters of the Northern Ireland protocol. Of course, with the UK unilaterally extending the grace periods for the implantation of checks, the full force of some of those checks doesn’t come into until October. At that point, the situation is likely to get substantially worst unless the UK and EU can agree a new more flexible way of working, a point made to Frost during his visit this week. For the time being, the EU shows little sign of moving away from its bureaucratic letter of the law approach. The UK, for its part, has taken a firm approach on EU jobseekers, detaining and deporting those who are visiting the UK without the appropriate reason and evidence. The approach has been decried by some European governments as disproportionate, though the UK has suggested the Covid–19 pandemic with its travel restrictions and related testing has also contributed. Regardless, relations are still fraught, something not helped by the 2021 War of Jersey which French president Emmanuel Macron is seeking to force onto this month’s European Council agenda. Solutions tend to need will and good feeling. Both seem to be still in very short supply and in the meanwhile, stories such as that today that Northern Ireland is to miss out on a new cancer drug licensed for use in Great Britain because of the regulatory border will do little to help.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP came top of the polls in the parliamentary elections, but stopped short of the clear majority some had predicted. While it marks a turnaround since the calls for her to resign in relation to the Alex Salmond affair, it leaves the question of another referendum finely balanced. Though nationalist parties won an overall majority, the SNP’s failure to do, albeit only just, fails to present Westminster with an absolutely unavoidable proposition. So far, Boris Johnson has avoided the question, something that he seems committed to carry on doing. For Sturgeon’s part, she is unwilling to force an ‘illegal’ referendum that would either alienate undecided voters of Brussels, keen to work members states facing their own nationalist/separatist movements. There is little to expect a change in approach from No.10 under Johnson. The threat of the SNP joining in an electoral coalition with the Labour Party has been a prominent line of attack in previous elections and it would not be a surprise to see it feature again in 2023 or 2024. However, such a plan does little to tackle a threat to the Union for which the prime minister will need more than decamped civil servants and direct infrastructure spending. Polls suggest roughly half of Scots favour independence in principle, but only 30% want a referendum within two years, as Sturgeon proposes. Any immediate rupture is unlikely, but Scotland’s First Minister is very much working to a plan “of when, not if”.

In ROI, there was “a significant ransomware attack” on the Health Service Executive’s (HSE) IT systems, leading to the “precaution” of shutting down all IT systems in order to “protect them from this attack and to allow us fully assess the situation with our own security partners”. Details are presently sketchy while officials work with the Garda, the Defence Forces and third party cyber security experts to respond to the cyber attack. However, chief executive of the HSE, Paul Reid, called it “an internationally operated criminal operation”. With disruption and cancellations expect, it is neither a laughing matter nor, as bitterly, a unique occurrence. France, Germany and the UK have all experienced similar attacks in recent years, highlighting what has at times been outdated infrastructure but more importantly the calculating and effective strategies of criminal organisations.

NI

Health

• Northern Ireland has recorded the lowest weekly number of coronavirus–related deaths registered since October 2020. The figure of three registered deaths is a decrease of five on the previous week’s toll.

• The health minister has warned that the mental health effects of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. Robin Swann was speaking at the Stormont Health Committee to mark Mental Health Week

• Half a million people in Northern Ireland have now received two doses of a Covid–19 vaccine. The number of people who have received at least a first vaccine dose in Northern Ireland is expected to reach one million “imminently”, said the health department.

Politics

• Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheal Martin have discussed the Ballymurphy massacre during a meeting at Chequers. The two leaders also agreed on the importance of finding “a way forward in Northern Ireland that delivers for victims and aids truth recovery”.

• The UK government is to bring forward legislation in the course of the next year to deal with legacy issues related to the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Local Politics

• The next lord mayor of Belfast is to be the Alliance Party councillor Kate Nicholl, who was born in Zimbabwe. She is the first person in recent times to hold the position who was not born in the UK or Ireland.

Brexit

• The operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol has been likened to the Vichy regime, during a legal challenge at the High Court in Belfast. John Larkin QC made the analogy in his opening argument on behalf of unionists politicians.

• The UK’s Brexit Minister Lord Frost has said it is hard to see that the way the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently operating “can be sustainable for long”.

Economy

• Northern Ireland’s Economy Minister Diane Dodds has launched her economic vision for the next decade.

• The plan’s 10 key principles include supporting a greener economy and increasing innovation.

• It outlines five “priority clusters”; information and communication technology, digital, agri–tech, creative industries and advanced manufacturing.

• The plan has been endorsed by business leaders from industry, digital, manufacturing and engineering.

Restrictions

• Non–essential travel from Northern Ireland to other parts of the Common Travel Area (CTA) is to be allowed from 24 May. The NI Executive has also announced upcoming relaxations for indoor hospitality and sporting events.

Trade

• UK goods exports to Ireland fell by 13% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year. Official estimates from the Office of National Statistics also show that imports from Ireland were down by 4% in the same period.

ROI

Health

• Health Service Executive CEO Paul Reid has revealed that the number of hospital patients with Covid–19 is down to 99. This is the lowest such figure since 24 September.

Business

• Launching an updated ‘Work Safely Protocol’ to assist employers in reopening safely, Leo Varadkar confirmed that vaccination will remain voluntary.

• Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar has also urged more employers to use antigen testing, but not as a substitute for other public health precautions.

Economy

• The International Monetary Fund has said more tax will need to be raised in Ireland to fund investments in physical and human capital. In a review of the Irish economy, the IMF says a gradual increase in tax revenue should be considered after next year, once a recovery from Covid–19 has taken hold.

• The Irish economy is expected to rebound in the second half of this year as lockdown restrictions ease and the vaccination rollout takes effect, with consumer spending expected to increase sharply, according to the European Union’s latest economic forecast.

• Young adults have suffered the worst unemployment and labour market impact from Covid–19, according to the latest research by the Economic and Social Research Institute. The report also found that younger people were experiencing wage stagnation, and that their situation was exacerbated by the high cost of rent.

Travel

• Ryanair has called for the removal of all travel restrictions from the end of May for air travel between Ireland and both the UK and EU. The airline said the reducing numbers of people in hospital with Covid–19, coupled with the rollout of the Covid–19 vaccine, means restrictions including hotel quarantine should end.

• The Government is considering an extended wage support scheme specifically for aviation amid fears of further job losses in the sector.

Trade

• The accumulated value of foreign direct investment in Ireland rose to over €1 trillion in 2019, according to new analysis from the Central Statistics Office.

Consumer

• The annual rate of consumer inflation rose by 1.1% in April, according to the latest figures from the Central Statistics Office. This marks the first positive annual rate since March of last year. The main factors behind the prices increases last month were higher energy and fuel prices.

Housing

• Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has said he appreciates the urgency of Ireland’s housing situation, and he acknowledged that the Government must do more to alleviate the challenges faced by first time buyers.