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The Briefing

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 21st May

AIKEN Weekly Digest – 21st May Banner

by Aiken PR

21/05/2021

Nothing’s different but everything has changed.

Nothing’s different but everything has changed. What a difference a week makes in politics, or does it? In a candid interview on BBC’s Nolan show, the leader elect of Unionism said he would not bring down the institutions, he provided assurance on the implementation of the Irish language act, outlined a targeted plan to eradicate the protocol and confirmed that in his view that gay people cannot be converted and are born that way. Edwin ‘Arlene Foster’ Poots did arouse reflection on what actually had changed, at the helm of the DUP. The Minister for Agriculture showed temperance, was conciliatory and, to be fair, started to build some much needed confidence in the longevity of the institutions which have been consistently dragged into the mire of the protocol’s volatility. The pragmatism that many said was there, reared its head early. Hardly a reassurance to the reform seeking party faithful that sought his coronation over Sir Jeffrey. Well, maybe that will come in the form of the First Minister. Emerging further into the spotlight this week was Mervyn Storey, and of course the North Antrim man espouses the same religious, civil and political vision as his party leader which was reported rather disparagingly in the UK broadsheets this week. For those who read a lot into a little, Poots did little to dismiss Storey’s ascension to the First Minister throne, although Paul Givan was also provided with a stirring reference. That said Storey is well qualified for the role of Education, having been a former Chair of the Stormont Education Committee. While Givan, Frew and Storey are names circulating for some of the posts including FM, Economy and Education, Edwin Poots is nothing if not unpredictable. Its very possible that he will catapult a left field candidate, into one of the hot seats and he will be cognisant of the need to reach out and build relationships across an increasingly fractured party.

As the fourth leader of the DUP, Poots will have less time to get things right than his predecessors. Electioneering has already started and he has a matter of months to build momentum, with his former party leader Peter Robinson piling on the pressure in this morning’s News Letter on the protocol, concessions to Sinn Fein including the Irish language act, and ensuring the DUP wins the election and holds the First Minister position. If he does not at the very least deliver the latter, its likely to be the shortest lived tenure of any DUP leader.

Party reorganisations remain in vogue with Sinn Féin deselecting incumbent South Down MLA Emma Rogan, despite her wishing to stand again. The move follows substantial changes in Foyle with Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan with further changes predicted to follow as the party looks to up its performance ahead of next year’s election. Of course, they are not the only ones to decide a new broom is necessary. The UUP has just anointed its next leader, unopposed, in Doug Beattie. A moderate with an MC, that’s a Military Cross and not a side–line in black tie events, he presents a fresh face for the party and a substantial point of difference with the DUP. That fact is not lost on the new leader, who said his election provides disenfranchised “unionists with a choice”. Though his more liberal viewpoint may create issues for party management, if not tempered by his military background. The UUP has been on the slide for some time and while a personnel reorganisation might work for Sinn Féin, it needs something much more fundamental. While his leadership shows a recognition of the need for a changed approach, it remains to be seen whether Beattie is the one to provide it.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard evidence from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC). Joel Keys, as 19–year–old representative of the organisation, proceeded to tell MPs, “I am not sure if and when violence will be the answer… I am saying that I would not rule it off the table.” Simon Hoare MP, chair of the committee, called it an “incredibly worrying and dispiriting answer”. Nonetheless, the strategy seems to be clear in that they have seen vague suggestions of violence yield results in respect of avoiding a border on the island of Ireland, so have decided to deploy a similar method. However, the words of the 19–year–old Keys, born several years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, lacks the sinister undertones and credibility of warnings prior to the Brexit referendum and a saddening indictment of our inability to bring our young people together since the halcyon days of Easter 1998. Despite being otherwise well spoken and a legitimate and probably underheard representative of an identifiable subsection within a Northern Ireland community, he came away looking foolish and short sighted. At the same session, David Campbell, chairman of the LCC, criticised EU officials for rebuffing requests for meetings to hear their concerns, though Claire Hanna made clear her objections to the LCC even being allowed to give evidence to the committee.

Anyone who has checked the weather forecast for the coming weeks will undoubtedly have been dismayed to see it is set to rain from now until eternity. However, following the Executive’s confirmation that indoor hospitality will be allowed from Monday, as will visiting the *inside* of other people’s homes, there is some hope. But it’s not all good news for those of you putting off that unappealing social engagement due to Covid regulations. Friday night dinner at the neighbour’s incoming. Details of the easing in the bullets below.

In the Republic Tánaiste Leo Varadkar revealed the plan for indoor dining was to resume in early July, even though “case numbers seem to be rising again.” It would be up to six people at a table, but with no requirement to buy a substantial meal as during previous stop–start reopening of hospitality. Dropping the meal stipulation is reflected in Northern Ireland and the other regions of the UK. A time limit on tables will also be removed. Varadkar added that only table service will be allowed when outdoor dining and drinking returns on 7 June and there will no longer be any restriction on the number of households permitted to sit at one table. The plan would put ROI substantially behind Northern Ireland’s easings and while Pfizer’s plan to start producing supplies of its Covid–19 vaccine from its Grange Castle plant in Dublin will help with the overall EU effort, it will do little to speed easing now. As time drags on and the prevalence of new variants varies in level of concern, any slipping will be increasingly contrasted against NI. With Sinn Féin accusing the Government of “waving the white flag” following the announcement of a proposal to introduce a higher rate of stamp duty on multiple house purchases, further criticisms will be damaging to perceived competence. Mary Lou McDonald said the housing measures would not reduce rents or house prices and that investment funds would have breathed a sigh of relief avoiding any reduction in rents, house prices, or the ability to buy up family homes.

NI

Health

• The number of Covid–19–related deaths registered in Northern Ireland has risen slightly. Seven people died this week according to statistics agency NISRA. Four more than the previous week, it brings the agency’s total Covid–19–related deaths to 2,967.

• The health minister has said he is hoping to secure around £2m to fund long Covid services in Northern Ireland. Robin Swann said the money would help deliver proposals from the Health and Social Care Board.

• More than one million people in Northern Ireland have received a first dose of a Covid–19 vaccine, according to the latest government figures. About 69% of Northern Ireland’s adult population have now received a first vaccine jab.

Restrictions

• Northern Ireland has likely seen “the end” of the most stringent coronavirus restrictions, the finance minister has said. Conor Murphy said he “sincerely believed” there would not be a return to full lockdowns.

Please find below detail of the changing restrictions:

• Indoor household visits allowed, with up to six people from no more than two households (this does not include children under 12);

• Overnight stays permitted;

• Indoor hospitality allowed with six people allowed to sit together from unlimited households (children under 12 not counted in the six);

• Hotels, B&Bs and other travel and tourism venues to reopen;

• Post wedding and civil partnership receptions permitted, with no restriction on top table but restriction of 10 at other tables;

• Removal of stay local message;

• Schools can resume extra–curricular activities, with indoor sports and outdoor inter–schools sports allowed;

• Indoor visitor attractions can reopen with mitigations, including amusement arcades, bingo halls, museums, galleries and cinemas;

• Libraries can reopen;

• All outdoor and indoor sport and leisure venues are permitted to open and indoor group exercise and training can resume, including soft play areas, leisure centres, gyms, swimming pools, equestrian centres, venues relating to motor sport and activity centres;

• Up to 500 spectators allowed at outdoor sport events or gatherings;

• Increase in number allowed for indoor (non–domestic) gatherings, subject to venue risk assessment.

Public Finances

The Northern Ireland Executive has allocated more than £300m of pandemic–recovery funding. The breakdown is as follows:

• Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – £2.6 million to include funding for the Wastewater Surveillance Programme, Rural Business Community Fund and Rural Community Ornamental Garden Scheme.

• Department for Communities – £10 million for councils, £3 million for the Community Support Programme, £1 million for Food Interventions, £0.8 million to support town and city centres and £0.5 million for IT support.

• Department for the Economy – £14.1 million for the Large Hospitality and Tourism Business Support Scheme and £18 million for the Covid Restrictions Business Support Scheme.

• Department of Finance – £64m for the Localised Business Support Scheme and £2.7 million for loss of income, staffing and recruitment.

• Department of Justice – £21.5 million of funding for cross–justice recovery, NI Courts and Tribunal Service, NI Prison Service and PSNI.

• Department for Infrastructure – £20 million for lost income.

• Public Prosecution Service for cross–justice recovery – £1.3 million.

Climate Change

• The public has been asked for its views on the Climate Bill which is making its way through the NI Assembly. Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) due to scrutinise legislation have issued a call for evidence as part of its public consultation. The consultation period runs for eight weeks and closes on 15 July.

Brexit

• For the NI Protocol to function it must have rules which are risk–based and appropriate, according to a major agri–food report published on Thursday. Some of the biggest food producers on both sides of the Irish border were surveyed for the study by the Irish Farmers’ Journal and KPMG.

• Supermarkets in Northern Ireland will face “real, severe problems” in October if there are not measures to replace the current NI Protocol grace period, an industry representative has said. Aodhán Connolly, from the NI Retail Consortium, was speaking to a House of Lords committee.

Housing

• House prices in Northern Ireland from January to March were 6% higher than the same time last year, according to official figures. This is the biggest annual rise in prices since 2016. Detached properties saw the biggest rise in value, up 7.6% in a 12–month period.

ROI

Health

• The Chief Medical Officer has said the National Public Health Emergency Team is “genuinely concerned” about the number of cases of the variant of Covid–19 first identified in India that have been detected in Ireland.

• No ransom has been paid by the Irish State in order to secure a decryption key to unlock Health Service Executive and Department of Health data stolen during a ransomware attack, the Minister for Health has said.

• Pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer has announced that it will begin using its west Dublin facility as part of its supply chain for its Covid–19 vaccine.

Travel

• The European Parliament and member states have reached agreement in principle on a digital Covid certificate that should open up summer travel across the European Union. The deal should allow people to travel across the EU from the end of June, with the help of a certificate that will indicate if a person has been vaccinated, has a negative Covid test, or has recovered from the virus.

Restrictions

• The Government will set out plans next week for a further easing of restrictions on travel, aviation, hospitality, sport and live events. A Cabinet meeting is expected to take place next Friday to make the final decisions for reopening during June and to sketch out plans for July.

• People will not be required to buy a substantial meal in order to have a drink in a pub when outdoor service resumes next month, the Tánaiste has said.

Economy

• Consumer confidence hit a 23–month high this month, according to KBC Bank Ireland’s latest consumer sentiment index. The index rose to 85.8 in May from 77.9 in April, as the Covid–19 virus incidence declined and the vaccination rollout picked up pace.

• The Economic and Social Research Institute has said “sizeable tax increases in the years ahead” will be needed to fund public services. In a paper published today, the think–tank said an over–reliance on corporate tax receipts and changes to motor tax means alternative sources of revenue will have to be found.

Employment

• More than three quarters of businesses are planning to return employees to their workplaces within the next three months if Government guidelines allow, a new survey by the employer’s group Ibec has found.