Is this Conservative Government able to deliver?

There are three issues to consider when we ask whether the DUP might return to Stormont while there is a Conservative Government in Westminster.

First and foremost is the way in which the NI Protocol undermines the economic harmony of the United Kingdom and breaches the fundamentals of the Union in doing so. If the DUP returned to Stormont with the NI Protocol largely in place, which is what the Windsor Framework ensures, would unionist voters ask, “What has the DUP achieved?” This could represent a return to the roll-over Robinson era, whose time has passed. The DUP vote, its mandate, is currently based on not returning to Stormont without restoring the equilibrium of relationships that sustained the Union before the Protocol.

Second, the DUP and the Government are also discussing the future funding of the Stormont administration. The DUP claims that the Barnett formula no longer works, and the Conservative Government may be wondering how much money it will take to get Stormont up and running. The other local Parties will welcome any money. In the past, the executive has mismanaged money, so that there is never enough funding, thanks to inefficiency and poor management. These have been outlined again and again in Audit Office and other reports, but the lessons never seem to be learned.

In any case, the DUP will be wary of allowing any return to be framed in terms of money alone. The broad unionist electorate would rightly ask ‘what about the Protocol?”. How much is the Union worth? Is the fundamental issue ‘the cash’ or ‘the Union’.

Which places added emphasis on the future of the NI Protocol. Perhaps the third and biggest single issue is one of ‘trust’.

Those who blame unionism for “Brexit” and take the attitude that the Protocol is the DUP’s fault, miss too many points to address them all here. The central point though is that while the DUP may have supported leaving the EU, the only ask subsequently was that Northern Ireland leave on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

Theresa May’s solution failed because with her backstop NI’s separation was used as a means of retaining close (sometimes described as dynamic) alignment with the EU for the whole UK. Had the case been made for a closer relationship, albeit outside the political Union, May might have succeeded had she not included the backstop, but she lacked the political intelligence or capital to be able to make the case for a softer departure.

Along the line of Conservative Party leaders Liz Truss was willing to bring forward and conclude the Protocol Bill, offering a brief glimmer of light for unionism. We’ll never know.

Underlying the unionist electoral antipathy to a return to Stormont without resolution of the Protocol is a massive distrust of the willingness of the Conservative Government to deliver on promises.

Added to which there is the political calculation of trusting a Conservative Government that can promise what it wants but is unlikely to have time, even it was believed to have the inclination, to deliver on any promise.

Reflecting on the political conference season it’s hard to find a clear sense that the Conservative Party can deliver on anything!

Conservative Home Editor, Paul Goodman, provided a series of articles from the Conservative Conference, each with an air of tired resignation, one of which ended: “Do the Conservatives really want to win? Or are they, in their heart of hearts, ready for Sir Kier Starmer?”

After thirteen years of Conservative Government, Tom McTague on wrote a report from the conference: “At every turn, with each new PM, they have succeeded in making things worse…  They promised national sovereignty and put a border down the Irish Sea; to reduce immigration only to let it double; and to stop the “chaos” threatened by Labour only to then turn round after 13 years and say they haven’t managed to change anything.”

Sharing a stage with EU President Von der Leyen to announce his Windsor Framework agreement might have seemed, in Sunak’s head, a positive early opportunity to project the Prime Minister as someone who gets things done. Since then, there have been endless delays and efforts to soften the roll-out of the framework as the practical realities forced themselves to the fore. It is almost as if the agenda of the moment is to delay the full impact of what Sunak agreed until it will be someone else’s problem.

Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, epitomises the dysfunction and discombobulation of this Conservative Government. At a Parliamentary Committee, he was unable to say whether what he had already said in public was true, untrue, or whether his words had been dashed against the rocks of reality. All the worse when consumers know, from experience, that his previous statement was patently untrue.

When a government minister cannot stand over his own statements on a significant aspect of government policy, and remains in post, then ‘trust’ in that Government to deliver would be wholly misplaced. As with the Windsor Framework, whatever the Government thinks it is doing, its ability to deliver on its promises to the people of Northern Ireland falls well short by any measure.

For the DUP to accept the ‘promise’ of legislation on the Union would be an act of incredible foolishness and an utter triumph of misplaced hope over the hard lessons of experience. The electorate would rightly ask whether a DUP that accepts a Conservative PM’s promises at face value is credible or worthy of confidence in delivering anything much itself.

A version of this article appeared in the Belfast News Letter on Tuesday 31 November 2023.

The DUP doesn’t gamble, and hasn’t a death-wish.

Local Government in Northern Ireland is in essence little more than selecting people to ‘manage’  bin collections, burying the dead, providing leisure facilities, issuing fines for dog fouling and litter, and planning; maybe some other bits and pieces, but few notice or care. No surprise that reporting by the local media rarely focuses on local government performance. Instead it continues on report crudely through in the prism of constitutional division and sectarian headcount.

The recent May election was no different.

Sinn Fein is now the Party with the largest number of Councillors in local government in Northern Ireland. To read or listen to some of the press and commentariat anyone would be forgiven for thinking that meant it had won a majority of all seats. It did not. It did hoover up a bit more of the nationalist aligned ‘independent’ vote and captured quite a bit of the SDLP electorate.

In an election where the vote can generally be relied upon to be higher than other parts of the UK, Sinn Fein still managed to get its vote out. The grievance this time was that those nasty Unionists were stopping Michelle O’Neill from becoming joint First Minister in Northern Ireland. Nothing to do with local government, and not true, but that didn’t seem to matter.

Hardly surprising, when for weeks preceding the election all focus was on why the DUP wasn’t restoring the Executive at Stormont and getting ‘back to work’! In all this there was absolutely no focus on Unionist objections to the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It was all about the DUP ‘having’ to go back to the Executive, enabling the Assembly to get back up and running. Just because.

It is a fact that the DUP is the stumbling block to the restoration of the Stormont Assembly and Executive. It has every good reason not to return to Stormont until issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol are satisfactorily addressed.

There are a range of reasons being given as to why the DUP ought to enable the restoration of the Stormont institutions though, other than the DUP itself, few commentators or media seem to believe issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are at the centre of this obstinacy.

Starting with the immediate aftermath of the local government elections, the first reason provided by commentators is that the TUV gained only a few additional councillors and the overall TUV vote fell from the 2022 Assembly election. It was fear of the TUV that made the DUP ‘hard-line, apparently. Therefore with the TUV ‘beaten’ the DUP could more easily consider a return to Stormont, we were told. 

1.  The DUP has seen off the threat of the TUV

Not quite. In the previous local government election, the TUV gained a number of seats in Mid & East Antrim and North Down & Ards Councils. In the recent election, the Party lost its seats in a constituency with the one of the lowest turnouts in Northern Ireland, North Down & Ards, despite being close – same as with the Assembly, it is not transfer friendly. However, in the council election the TUV gained its first seats in Belfast, Causeway Coast & Glens and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Councils. That seems as if it has broadened its electoral base into far a greater number and more ‘traditional’ Unionist areas than previously. If the councillors’ elected can use their positions to gain profile, this offers a far greater threat to the DUP than before. The TUV ‘threat’ still lurks, menacingly. Jim Alister retains the ability to hold the DUP’s feet to the fire.

2.  The Windsor Framework resolves the issues of the NI Protocol.

No, it doesn’t. The Windsor Framework is simply an agreement on how to implement the NI Protocol. The NI Protocol will start to be fully implemented this Autumn, as agreed, unless it isn’t. The only pressure on the Conservative Government and possibly the EU (though the EU doesn’t seem to have cared, as the Irish Government has cheered it on) is that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is seen to be broken if the Stormont Assembly isn’t up and running.

It is clear, as articulated by Jeffrey Donaldson in the House of Commons, that the border in the Irish Sea is no more acceptable to Unionists than a border along the EU’s land border would be to nationalism. Without that being accepted, the GFA is meaningless and a principal plank on which the Northern Ireland Protocol was founded to achieve is actually as unachievable as the Protocol is unworkable.

Unionists are unlikely to start talking about the ‘spirit of the Protocol’, to believe in something that isn’t reality, in the same way many (nationalism) talk of the ‘spirit of the Good Friday Agreement’, inferred, the reality of a promise of gold at the end of an Irish rainbow.

In the wave of optimism and fine words after the Rishi and Ursula show of unity at Windsor, the fog thickens around what is actually going to happen as the Protocol tightens this Autumn 2023. Previously supportive national supermarket retailers have been scathing. Parcel rules will become an unwelcome bureaucracy within the United Kingdom.

When the Protocol was first enacted, the process for sending goods into Northern Ireland was so unworkable that around 80% of goods that should have been within the Protocol were under ‘grace periods’ ie largely exempt from the Protocol arrangements. Of the rest, there were still major issues around the bureaucracy mostly on level of form-filling required. What the Windsor Framework has done is reduce the number of boxes to be ticked to around 20% of what was required previously.

Not mentioned is that that the 80% of goods that were previously exempt will now be back under the unworkable scheme. Maybe in some management consultancy world the reduction of the number of boxes to be ticked makes what was previously unworkable magically seamlessly streamlined and efficient, that the added bureaucracy and cost across the board is ‘an improvement’.

To people with common sense, fewer boxes to tick doesn’t sound like much of a solution to an unworkable process.

Parcels are going to be custom checked, with GB-based Post Office counter staff left in the invidious position of working out if the person standing in front of them is or is not a relative of the intended recipient, or whether the parcel is being sent to a customer (end consumer) of a business rather than a customer (another business). What could go wrong?

Meanwhile, on Amazon, the number of items that are not deliverable to Northern Ireland is visibly increasing, particularly in the Marketplace area where retailers themselves fulfil orders generally. Elsewhere the cost of delivery to NI is increasing, or being applied where GB delivery would be free.

Forget ‘there will be no border in the Irish Sea’, or even that ‘there will no sense of a border in the Irish Sea’.  This will be back to the full unworkable Irish Sea Border in the north channel mess, unless a lot of people look the other way or delay implementation. With a couple of months before the full process starts to kick in, it is clear no-one knows how this is going to work.

As it stands, four of the main Northern Ireland political parties think this is not going to be a problem. Perhaps they would like to address how the myriad of problems outlined in the recent House of Lords report might be resolved? Full report with list of outstanding issues here.

Stormont would be useless in addressing the severe challenges of the full implementation of the NI Protocol, just as it has been useless in addressing every other significant issue this past twenty-five years; every difficult decision for Stormont being duly pitched back to Westminster.

Why would the DUP want to be sitting in regional Government, with no power to either mitigate or roll back the rigorous implementation of a Protocol almost entirely as the EU intended, with the EU making the Rules while the UK Government sits on its hands?

3.  Because the cost-of-living crisis

Nothing, nothing would be done by Stormont that would make one jot of difference about the cost of living. Not bank rates, not food prices, not anything unless it is already thought through and paid for from Westminster. Despite all the squealing as energy prices rose, adequate support was provided by Westminster in time.

Stormont could do nothing about bank rates except write a few letters expressing blah-de-blah, and absolutely nothing on mortgage relief – which would be the right thing, but none of the Parties would be able to say that because their tightly clutched pearls would be choking them.

If the Parties think that the cost of food and goods is getting ever more expensive, they aren’t seeing the costs and scarcity heading their way from this Autumn as the NI Protocol is fully and rigorously implemented – albeit with at least some of the forms having fewer boxes to tick. Prices will rise as costs of doing business with Northern Ireland increase, or goods will simply disappear from the shelves or as an option to buy online.

In any case, the solution so far, offered by other Parties, is that Westminster needs to increase the NI budget, etc.

4.  It isn’t about the Protocol, it is about the money.

No previous crisis seems to have been resolved without Westminster promising in some way to splash the cash. There is talk this time round of £1 billion or more being on the table. The DUP have talked about changing the process by which funds are allocated to the NI budget – moving away from the long-standing Barnett formula for matching, proportionately, spending announced at Westminster into the NI Budget.

For the DUP there would be two dangers in allowing any return to Stormont to be framed in terms of financial gains. First, how much is the Union worth? Is the fundamental issue ‘the cash’ or ‘the Union’.

The fundamental issue of the Protocol is about the Union. Returning with the NI Protocol largely in place, which is what the Windsor Framework has assured, would have unionist voters ask what has the DUP achieved. It would be a return to the roll-over Robinson era, whose time has passed. The DUP vote, its mandate, is currently based on not returning to Stormont without restoring the equilibrium of Union relationships before the Protocol. Money won’t fix that.

The second danger is whether the DUP would gain any political return on a claim to having secured extra funding. Every other Party is making a pitch for more cash for Stormont, ergo every other Party will claim success for securing the extra cash. The DUP should know there is zero political gain for securing that extra cash, with good reason.

Does anyone recall the specifics of the funds relating to the 2017 Confidence & Supply arrangement with May’s Conservative Government? The DUP ‘secured’ £1 billion additional funding for Stormont, albeit with no Stormont existing for most of the period of the arrangement. Something broadband network, something health, something infrastructure? (Yes, all eleven local government areas are in the top twenty areas for UK superfast broadband coverage. Point is no one recalls or cares the source of some of the funding towards that coverage, or connects the C&S to improved broadband, because coverage is not the same as take-up and many just don’t understand that broadband improvement is cable infrastructure related.)

Where funding was spent as intended, few will recall on what, where or when.  One item though, yet unspent, stands out. It was agreed that funding from the Confidence and Supply arrangement assured the spend for the long-awaited York Street Interchange – a crucial piece of engineering to reduce congestion and smooth traffic flow through Belfast between motorway systems. Today, it is much as it was in 2017. The Minister, from the SDLP in the resurrected Stormont Assembly 2020, further prevaricated.

The money was available, but the Minister found there was a need for further consultation: for ‘placemaking’. Indeed. More likely, delay enabled the SDLP to prevent the DUP making political capital out of securing the funding to build the York Street Interchange as a positive outcome of its deal with the Conservative Government. Particularly relevant as the 2022 election loomed.

This should tell the DUP that unless there is a very specific programme for Government, with clear gains from any additional funding, that any resumed Stormont will bank the cash and continue business as usual. Business as usual was mostly the other Executive Parties ensuring that whatever the DUP wanted or proposed they would be against, or the decision-making prolonged and debate shifted to ensure there would be no credit for the DUP in any delivery.

Whatever the question, money is not an answer that would serve the DUP well.

The DUP might be accused of many things. Having a death-wish isn’t one of them.

When the defining issue of not being in Stormont is the Northern Ireland Protocol, no amount of money could ever justify the resurrection of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

For the DUP there are a range of considerations that suggest there is no compelling reason to enable the restoration of Stormont without the Protocol being more mutual enforcement than EU brickbat.

  • The TUV remains a latent threat, with wider representation following the council elections.
  • The Windsor Framework makes the Northern Ireland Protocol ‘a little less unworkable’ at best. There is no way the DUP can be in Stormont and having to administer the many issues that will arise as the rigorous implementation of all aspects of the Protocol take effect. The blame will be reflected back on it with every Protocol problem it highlights – if anyone wants to imagine what that would be like, it would be like a Reg Empey in the ear every single day.
  • The ability to do anything additional at Stormont that does not require funding from Westminster, not least anything meaningful with regard to the “cost-of-living crisis”, is zero.
  • There is no amount of money that will bring either political gain from more funds into the bottomless pit that is the Stormont budget or resolution to the core issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Add to all this, as Nigel Dodds articulated at length, there is nothing the British Government is doing currently that meets the DUP’s own seven tests. Gavin Robinson put it more succinctly:

This echoes what Donaldson had said earlier:

Which is a version of what was directed at the UK-EU Parliamentary Assembly before that:

What is remarkable from Northern Ireland ‘commentators’ is that views on the DUP are always couched in terms of Jeffrey having to deal with the ‘hard-liners’, where Nigel Dodds would be categorised. Yet there is a clear consistency across Donaldson, Robinson and Dodds.

It might be fair to say that there are some DUP MLAs who would go back to Stormont tomorrow, though ask any of them what they might achieve in Stormont and the answer would be lacking any clear purpose beyond ‘being there’.

The mood within the unionist electorate that votes, a ‘vibe’ as defined in the recent Political OD Podcast, reflected in the strength of vote in the council elections, is one of broad support for the DUP’s current stance on staying out of Stormont until issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed. That vote was in the face of relentless campaigning against the DUP by all and sundry; locally, nationally, and some internationally putting their oar in.

In the News Letter, Owen Polley suggests, despite best efforts by some to present otherwise, the most recent polling confirms core DUP electoral strength lies in ‘not’ restoring Stormont for the time being at least.

To not just roll over on the Protocol and return to Stormont, but to do a double flip back somersault volte-face with that return would be a step of unbelievable electoral bravery.

The DUP knows that it isn’t entirely trusted by many who currently vote for the Party. Despite political strength in seats, and the weakness of its once rival UUP and the inability to date of the TUV to break through, the vote it holds is soft. A great many hold their nose to vote DUP, on the Union. There are many others who don’t, and for now do not vote at all, but just might if the DUP proves its ability to deliver on the Union. These are testing times for the DUP. For once, the DUP will need to stand firm.

These are the electoral considerations the DUP must ponder. It must believe that there is a possibility that with Stormont not restored there may be an election at the end of January, something it would not fear, unless it was facing all the Protocol issues with no obvious means of responding. The UUP may not be so sanguine. There is a Westminster election in 2024, and it could not be seen to lose any seats.

The Conservative Party would have to more than promise in the coming months. There is no reason to believe the present Conservative Government could be trusted on delivering anything. It may not be that an incoming Labour Government could be more trusted, but it may be sensible to wait and see if there is a more favourable political environment in which to act decisively.

The DUP has significant calls to make going forward.

It is possible that there is a decision by the DUP to return to Stormont, and that all the above is regarded as too alarmist with hindsight. Go back ‘at any cost’ might well be the favoured option: live with subsequent events, however the dice rolls, and make the best of it. It is a gamble that may pay off or, equally, won’t. If the gamble fails, the Democratic Unionist Party is over. It would be about as trusted by the Unionist electorate as is Rishi Sunak or Chris Heaton-Harris. The end may not be immediate, but the chances of surviving whole would be slim.

There are a host of good reasons for the DUP not to return to Stormont at the present time. There are few justifications for a return to Stormont that would stand the test of time.

The DUP is not a party known for political gambles, and it certainly hasn’t a death-wish.

Back to the blog

Been busy with business and focused on the podcast as outlet rather than commenting here.

Time to return. There will be a little catch up on a piece or two, then back to the infrequent thoughts on stuff.

Podcast continues: PoliticalOD

Protocol, policing and polls.

Back after a summer with more conversation around issues hitting the political headlines, and some bubbling.  Events have moved quickly over the past week since this was recorded, but still very relevant by way of what lies behind some of the current news.

Anticipated in this podcast recorded on the 2 September, the Protocol ‘grace’ periods and delays are bumped down the road to maybe closer to Christmas. More likely more delay will then be generated going into 2022, until after the Assembly elections due in May. It would be highly embarrassing if the ‘rigourous implementation’ demanded by some were to actually happen before the election. Bad enough they’ll be eating beans on toast in Cherryvalley this Christmas.

Unremarked in that story from M&S was a warning on the likely impact of rules being applied to goods from all EU countries – the UK Government has so far not implemented import rules as it ought. Archie Norman is quoted as noting:

“This is not a one-way street. At the moment, the Irish Government is following EU guidelines and implementing their draconian controls. But by contrast, the UK has allowed EU products to continue to flow into the country, no veterinary checks, no border inspection.

“Starting in October, that is going to change when UK Government rules are set to mirror those of the EU. So in a mutual act of self-destruction, we risk lumbering French cheese producers and Spanish chorizo manufacturers with the same costs as we have faced trying to export food to the EU.”

He said “delays, driver shortages and paper mountains could be spectacular”.

A sigh of relief all round today with the extension of ‘grace’ periods in respect of the NI Protocol. That relief will be short-lived in the Republic as the full impact of Brexit on imports into the UK are to start soon, with the biggest changes in January.  From Dublin, with a very subdued Leo Varadkar commenting on UK news outlets about the delay in implementation of the Protocol: Leo of course knows that the food will hit the fan on exports Republic of Ireland to GB (East-West) around the same time as he takes back control of Leinster House.

Meanwhile, the Simon Byrne, PSNI Chief Constable, looks less and less in control of anything much. Just a week after a row about failure to address open displays by paramilitaries he finds himself ‘explaining’ when the PSNI undertook survey work, using a group associated with a convicted terrorist with whom his previous engagement wasn’t a PR success.

This can’t be a problem for the Chief Constable alone. As Suzanne Breen points out, there is an army of advisers that are either ignored or fairly useless if the path taken in this Report on policing was considered credible.

It is a presumption of incredible naivety that survey work undertaken by the Community Restorative Justice Ireland would lend credibility to determining recommendations on policing. That the Strategic Management Board of the PSNI thought this was a Report worth accepting in principle is astounding – either not knowing or not being remotely curious on what basis the recommendations were made.

Other Surveys and Polls have also been in the news. The Let’s Talk Loyalism survey is what it is, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more. The group generated a means of expressing views from within a specified community and used bit of online software to do that. The published report doesn’t hide its methodology or the limitations.

Some have been very quick to attack this on the basis that it called for the “collapsing of Stormont.” That missed the point by a mile. The survey didn’t pretend to be scientific and simply provided a snapshot on thinking with a particular community. It is a contribution on what is happening on the ground, on the street, in conversations around the country. Better trying to articulate views than have them played out on the street. The initiative should be commended and by all means address the issues raised, but don’t shoot the messenger.

Lucid Talk. If anyone had background doubts on how Lucid Talk conducts online polling in Northern Ireland the interview on the Stephen Nolan Show won’t have eliminated those questions.

At best, anyone out and about over the summer, speaking to actual people, can’t have been surprised at the headlines around the poll. They indicate what those very observant dogs in the street are all talking about. The DUP needs to show some capacity to deliver on promises, and an uncomfortable and despairing shift to Alliance by some UUP voters seem to have been reversed.

The TUV strength are no surprise. While there are many who doubt Jim Allister as a future First Minister, or would agree with policies of the TUV outside ‘Unionist’ issues, he is hugely respected as a person of principle. On the dominant issue of the day, he is head and shoulders above the others – he was one of the three instigators of the Judicial Review of the Protocol winding its way through the legal system, to which the others joined. The basis of that JR was covered in a previous podcast. Jim Allister acted while others talked.

Of course the only poll that matters is the electoral poll. The next Assembly Election is due in May 2022, which maybe sooner, or later, if ever at all.

The DUP is unlikely to roll-over between now and election, and may even endeavour to trigger one sooner than later.

Time will tell. Looks like there will be plenty to talk about with @3000Versts as we head into what promises to be a lively Autumn.

Crisis of confidence

The latest Political OD podcast was recorded before the widespread calls for the resignation of the PSNI’s Chief Constable, following the usual pass the buck to the PPS which then had to consider a base of evidence that could be described as less than slam-dunk to secure a conviction. Morally, publicly, reprehensible as Sinn Fein actions were at the Storey funeral the PPS could only work with the files before it.

The story being built around the Storey funeral suggests ‘everyone’ is confused on both law and responsibilities, including those who wrote the law and those who might be expected to uphold the law. The public does not share that ambiguity in respect of what happened at that funeral.

All this within a year after the first Covid lockdown, and notably just over a year of New Decade “New” Approach. The relationships between the Parties making up the Northern Ireland Executive seem to be little better than 2017 (when the Assembly last collapsed). The ability of our institutions to address anything much with a degree of competence seems, at best, little improved on earlier incarnations.

Devolution is not delivering. Is this institutional, or simply that those at the head lack the competence/experience/imagination? By way of example, the further delay to the York Street Interchange infrastructure project – £140 million allocated in 2017 –  because of ‘place making’ has the public rolling its eyes. It is a motorway junction causing untold travel misery for commuters and delays for businesses. We don’t need to ‘make’ a place, we need to make a start!

The public is being played for a fool. Either Stormont steps up, or it needs to step out of the way. Honestly, between 2017 and 2020 most people happily got on with their lives and had Stormont not been resuscitated in early 2020 few believe we would be in a worse place today. Next time the Assembly collapses, let’s make sure a DNR is in place.

Double trouble for SMEs

The recent UK Budget provided small comfort to small businesses in excluding many from the proposed corporation tax increases.

In Northern Ireland that was indeed small comfort to many small businesses. They are doubly troubled. Burdened by the NI Protocol and supply issues that impact directly on competitiveness within the UK internal market, and battered by the indecision of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Covid Roadmap that is long on words, short on anything that much informs anyone.

“Can’t have people in complete darkness as to what comes next,” declared the Health Minister (Nolan Live, 3 March). The NI Exec seems not have found the light switch. The small incremental easements, for which the population is to be grateful no doubt, is hard to accept because there is little explanation as to why the information being used by the NI Health Department is so different from SAGE, and what Matt Hancock gets across his desk, to provide such an incoherent and unjustifiable extension of lockdown restrictions.

For small businesses lack of dates, targets or hope of opening anytime soon is an added blow at a time when the NI Protocol is proving to be a massive headache to sustaining business competitiveness within the UK and customer service locally – “Eight days for carrots to get to Belfast”.

Over on Think Scotland the impact of the NI Protocol is explained in more detail, but worth repeating a number of examples of how this is affecting three very different businesses:

ONE: A small haulier, employing just 15 people in the Belfast docks area is concerned that it lacks the resources to support customers, with large hauliers employing teams of people to do nothing other than input data into the systems.

TWO: A General Store in a small market town sources many items from GB. The store has successfully moved online. The business has two major challenges. Many of the sources of GB product have decided that the hassle of wading through the new rules is not worth the effort and have declined to provide goods to Northern Ireland. Those that have persisted with sending goods to Northern Ireland have increased cost to cover both time and effort spent in facilitating sales and delivery. For the store, there has been greater time spent trying to find alternative sources of goods – often at greater cost – but the range available to customers has declined and the cost increased. That is probably true of any local competitor to the store owner. The greatest impact, however, has been online, where reduced range and greater costs means the NI store has found itself to be uncompetitive with GB retailers online who do not have to bear the same challenges.

THREE: A local distributor for a sports goods business based on the South coast of England notes that his business is seasonal, low volume, though high value. After two months wading through the process to try to register as ‘goods not at risk’ (of entering the EU Single Market) he has discovered the requirement, monthly for ‘Supplementary Declarations’These seem incredibly complex for such a small and discrete business.

These are businesses that represent jobs, people, livelihoods that are invisible to policy makers and politicians. Hidden from the consumer because while we are in lockdown the supermarkets are all we see, the plight of small businesses including much of hospitality is barely mentioned at Stormont press events.

What happens when small businesses are expected to emerge from lockdown?

How many will simply give up?

How many will try to remain open, only to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the Protocol, accumulated lockdown debts, and a shrinking high street that means much reduced footfall?

That matters a lot in Northern Ireland; an SME dominated economy with 80% of NI private sector employment in SMEs (compared with under 60% for the UK).  The small acorns that represent present economy and future growth are being smothered by inadequate political leadership on the NI Protocol and an incoherent disassembled response to Covid.


The PoliticalOD podcast is available on Podbean, as well as being available for download/subscription from Apple, Spotify and most other regular services…  

Follow @3000Versts and @thedissenter on Twitter

Calculating risk

The Protocol was always intended, as the backstop was before that, to tie the UK to a relationship dominated by the EU.

The tensions in NI with respect to the operation of the Protocol will only intensify while the UK Government resists the EU in efforts to lasso the UK back into the subservient relationship.

The (almost) triggering of Article 16 at the end of January showed how little the EU cared, not even with a passing thought, for the Good Friday Agreement or for its ever faithful member of the EU27 the Republic of Ireland.

Not hard to understand how those who demanded the NI Protocol be ‘implemented rigourously’ to assure NI’s Special relationship should demand a UK/EU SPS agreement to soften the Protocol; just like Switzerland? What that means, in essence, is more Europe. A step towards a sequence of agreements that would in effect take the UK ever closer back towards Brussels.

The podcast at the top of the page discusses how the Protocol was never about the Good Friday Agreement, or ‘best of both worlds’ but a desire for the EU to create a Trojan horse to be a thorn in the UK’s side , and by a Conservative leader desperate to move out of the Brexit mess he was bequeathed by the previous Prime Minister.

There is no doubt the EU believes anything entering Northern Ireland is a risk to the Single Market – a absolutist legal hold – a M&S ready meal could bring down the German economy in one thoughtless purchase at Sprucefield.

Risk, however, is relative. That idea needs to gain a lot more currency to break through what seems at present to be an impasse.

Not that the idea of absolutism is too far from the thinking of the Northern Ireland Department of Health. Despite indications that the vaccination programme is already having a positive impact on the number of over 80 year old Inpatients, the Chief Medical Officer was reported to believe that restrictions would stay in place until 2022. If vaccines are to be of little impact on restrictions, what will see an end to the confinement that is increasingly frustrating and damaging to the economy and personal sanity.

The PoliticalOD podcast is available on Podbean as well as Google, Apple, Spotify, Amazon and a host of other places – basically most places you might usually download or listen to podcasts. 

Tiocfaidh ar latte!

The final segment of this episode of the podcast with @3000Versts is insightful commentary from the Financial Times, that a United Ireland is imminent because there are posh East Belfast coffee shops. Who knew?

The remarkable ability to put apples and oranges together and calling it bowl of bananas is a communications trait that seems to be all too prevalent in public discourse, and perhaps the underlying theme of this Episode. The theatre of a disorganised riot becomes an ‘insurrection, while democracy is lauded within a cordon of tens of thousands of armed troops. Lockdown is the only policy to ‘protect the NHS’, as if there was no alternative, and ‘freedom’ must be sacrificed for an institution of state? Slightly longer than usual, for big topics.

Unpicking reality.

It is increasingly difficult to tell truths from reality; carefully crafted facts from fiction. Expert opinion is often just that; opinion based on estimates, extrapolations and best guesses. These are often made within a framework that itself determines the explanation presented as ‘self-evident’ truths, that don’t last past confrontation with reality – not even by those on the same team?

Perhaps this is a pattern that has been developing longer than the Covid-19 circumstances, where big bold promises usually end up being less than billed, if they materialise at all.

For this final podcast of 2020 we hadn’t spent Christmas reading the 400+ pages of Trade Agreement with the 800+ pages of extras. Others had, and the general sense was that it served to ‘take back control’ insomuch as any Agreement has pluses and minuses. What many miss is that this is just the terms and conditions of trade. The UK had already left the EU on 31st December 2019. Whether there is anything lurking in the fine print we’ll have to wait and see.

On Radio 4 Today programme on Monday 28th December, David Davis MP mused that there was nothing obvious over which the EU could hold the UK to ransom. That was already done with the NI Protocol alongside the Withdrawal Agreement, and is likely to prove a future bone of contention.

The SDLP and Alliance MPs are probably voting against the Trade Agreement in the House of Commons because they remain in denial about the fact that the UK has left the EU already, and that the ‘special status’ they supported will not be quite as special as they imagined.

The DUP, however, are trying to make a virtue out of something something…. There is little coherence of consistency in its current approached to future trade arrangements UK, EU or anywhere. It has agreed to a ‘howl at the moon’ session in the Assembly this week (30th December) on the Trade Agreement which is the equivalent of any Northern Ireland Council condemning Donald Trump – no-one cares, few notice, but there are a few lines in the local papers. Move along now…

That brings us back to Northern Ireland politics. Perhaps the most obvious #fail of this past year has been New Decade New Approach, the framing of which certainly took full advantage of the start of new decade to suggest something might change. It hasn’t.

Most striking this past year has been the destructive desire of Sinn Fein to operate truly as itself alone and sod everyone else.

The end result is that few in Northern Ireland can tell you what level of ‘lockdown’ we’re in. Everything is being banked on a vaccine roll-out, which would need to be a whole lot better than this year’s flu vaccine distribution – despite promises of access to anyone over 50, try finding one outside of Belfast. Worst has been the outrageous failure to protect the most vulnerable in our society, in particular the Care Homes.

Part of that has been lack of accountability or transparency. There is no strategy or thinking, or change in a fast moving environment, to provide a safety blanket to cover our elderly and infirm. The Departmental Press Releases no longer note those from a Care Home environment who die in a hospital – and in an answer to a question by Jim Allister it would seem that the information on how many from Care Homes are hospital inpatients is ‘not currently available’.

We were told that testing of staff in Care Homes was going to be increased from fortnightly (amazing that was considered acceptable in the first instance) to weekly, and there was even a suggestion that the Executive was considering daily testing. What is the current testing protocol? Who knows? Who in the media is asking?

The failings of Stormont have been laid bare during a health crisis that is bigger than the crisis called by medics in 2019 or that of 2018 – or any previous health crisis, precipitated or exacerbated by the complete failure of Government to reform Northern Ireland’s health care provision (probably starting with a clear out of the Health Department. Reform cannot come soon enough and needs to be not just accelerated, but supercharged.

Supercharging brought the discussion to Donald Trump. While most media has focused on his apparently obsessive tweeting, we do discuss that almost un-noticed has been deep de-regulation that had supported economic growth (until Covid) and an international agenda that had seen the USA engaged in no new conflicts since 2016, a significant step towards reconciliation in the Middle East between Israel and Arab neighbours (not perfect, but right direction and more that anyone had achieved since Jimmy Carter), and a stable Korean peninsula or as stable as possible with Comrade Kim in charge.

There were two tangental aspects to that discussion.

One the best description of the Trump Presidency, that of high camp, in a piece for This Week by  Matthew Walther @matthewwalther. Matthew wasn’t the first to have raised that interpretation of Trump as President, but seems to have encapsulated the notion best. Trump is the first camp President by Drew Goins @drewlgoins appeared in the Washington Post in 2019, and How Trump Hi-jacked Camp by Spencer Kornhaber @skornhaber for The Atlantic was a month earlier in 2020. 

While speaking about life as unreality Trump, Kim etc, @3000Versts was reminded of a documentary on the BBC iPlayer about a Danish North Korean Appreciation Society (part of an international movement, really) entitled The Mole. Well worth a watch. Which reminded @thedissenter of Comrade Detective. While in the podcast this is described as an original Romanian 1970s police show in the genre of Amercian cop shows of the period, it is in fact a clever parody released on Amazon in 2017. Real enough to feel authentic, while not. It’s confusing, more so for memory of that time, and of some characters from the Eastern Bloc, that made it seem all the more real.

Finally some words on China. If we started the podcast on Covid it seemed appropriate to end talking about China, where it all started. We recorded the podcast on the day when news arrived of a Chinese journalist jailed for four years for having been one of the first to write about the China virus. Zhang Zhan was convicted of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge that is often used against dissidents and other critics of the government.

Also on that day was news of an EU rush to sign an ‘investment agreement’ with China. If the EU thinks that China is a trustworthy trade partner and can be relied upon to respect the International Labour Organisation’s rules on forced labour then it is deluded – the lot of the Uighur Muslims is unlikely to improve any time soon. If the EU believes it has a partner that respects international norms or agreements, look at the increasing repression in Hong Kong since the blatant breach of its commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that promised residents would continue to have rights to speech, press, assembly and religious belief, among others—at least until 2047.

Other than the remarkable science underlying the production of a range of vaccines in 2020, there are many aspects of 2020 that does not portend well for 2021.

On that note, Happy New Year.



Borderline ClusterF#£€!

The question is not whether or not there is a trade Agreement between the UK and EU in the first week of December. Rather it is a question of preparedness for either scenario.

This episode looks at the monumental scale of unpreparedness for any level of Trade Agreement, by just about everyone – it isn’t just the UK Govt struggling with the reality of it all. There has been some general media reporting on this in recent weeks, but print and broadcast media sometimes avoid specifics to save baffling the reader, listener, or viewer.

On CapX the broad shape of what the British Government is trying desperately to avoid calling a border is emerging, and the contradictions between intent, policy and implementation laid bare. This is the article mentioned in the podcast.

The Devil, however, is in the detail, and this episode explains the current hell into which hauliers are staring.

The point is made that this is not just about Northern Ireland and trade with the rest of the UK. The underlying software needed to make trade work smoothly post-transition, is for all trade with the EU.

Of course in the Withdrawal Agreement (and Protocol) Northern Ireland is for customs purposes within the UK Customs territory, we are told. Goods will move seamlessly, unfettered, we are told. The detail suggests otherwise.

The Protocol arrangements means the cost of doing business for Northern Ireland traders, the ability to complete as equals within the UK Internal Market, will be much reduced. Those added costs will also weaken competitiveness in other markets too, such as in the Republic of Ireland and rest of the EU. Best of both worlds? Hardly.

Worse, there is a whole different level of complexity for the smaller trader, that might in time be resolved by the tech wizards of the big multiples and major manufacturers well used to managing complex logistical processes. For now no-one has a close where or what will be required for the 1st January, and that is regardless of any trade agreement, because not matter the scale or nature of the agreement there is a bureaucrat in Brussels who will insist on the paperwork.

In the wake of Covid, NI business needs this debacle like a hole in the head.

In the final analysis the only certainty is that it will be the Northern Ireland consumer who will ultimately pay.