Only if Johnson comes up with a firm proposal can the DUP’s true position be revealed

Despite Arlene Foster’s public denials, the Times stands by its story that  ahead of any return to Stormont ,the DUP would support the idea of the Assembly signing off on a deal to replace the backstop that would involve some ( no doubt de-dramatised) “checks in the Irish Sea” . This is based on the hope that DUP all-Ireland agreement on agri foods is only a stage on a journey rather than the final destination. It would mean the DUP joining the others including Sinn Fein in agreeing something more comprehensive. What would happen if they didn’t agree?  Would that amount to the veto that Dublin and the EU have repeatedly they will not concede to the Assembly? If not, what’s the point of it?   We can only know the answers to these key questions if Boris Johnson makes a firm proposal. Will he do that before he puts a new Deal package to Brussels? Or hold back in case some party or other torpedoes it in advance?

From the Times report today.       

 

The Times revealed yesterday that the DUP was shifting some of its red lines to unlock a deal with the EU. Critically, the Northern Irish party has privately indicated that it could accept regulatory checks in the Irish Sea and divergence from Britain with the consent of the province’s democratic institutions.

Despite Ms Foster’s and Mr Wilson’s insistence, party sources say that they could accept regulatory divergence with the “consent” of Northern Irish democratic institutions. They made clear that this would not require the executive and assembly to be restored before October 31. “That could happen in the transition period,” they said. They were “positive” that a deal could be done.

The deal could find favour with the EU, which fears Northern Ireland becoming a back door into its single market for non-compliant goods if the UK signs trade deals with countries such as the United States.

Surprisingly perhaps Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s negotiator around the GFA and still a keen observer gives no encouragement to the Times’ analysis in a letter to the paper. But then he’s an unrepentant Remainer.

… If we leave the single market and the customs union, as we will have to for the Canada-style free trade agreement favoured by Boris Johnson, there will have to be a border somewhere. It can be between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK or between the island of Ireland and the rest of the EU.

The DUP has a perfectly legitimate complaint against the border between Northern Ireland and Britain because it undermines its identity. The Irish are rightly never going to agree to a border with the EU. And a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would reopen the issue of identity underpinning the Good Friday agreement. This has been the problem bedevilling the Brexit talks since the start and to suggest that a common agricultural area for the whole of Ireland and some cobbled-together ideas about trusted trader schemes solves it, is nonsense. In truth we are still a long way from a negotiated deal and no one has yet found the magic key to unlock it.

Jonathan Powell
Downing Street chief of staff 1997-07

 

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The DUP’s anti-backstop stance is softening — but that is no guarantee of a Brexit deal

The DUP has unquestionably shifted its tone on Brexit over recent weeks. Although the party still defends the necessity of no-deal being kept on the table as an option – something consistent with its aggressive approach to negotiations – it is also a pragmatic party and is making increasingly explicit not only that it wants a deal but that it is prepared to compromise in order to get one.

However, the compromises it can accept and sell to its supporters may be insufficient to secure the ambitious outcome which the backstop was intended to guarantee – virtually no change to the free-flow of goods across the Irish border after Brexit.

Having met Boris Johnson in Downing Street on Tuesday, the DUP leadership appears to genuinely believe that the Prime Minister is firmly set against either the current backstop or a Northern Ireland-only variant – from the DUP’s perspective, an even worse alternative. But regardless of whatever guarantees the Prime Minister has given to them, the DUP leadership has recent memories of how he betrayed them in the spring by voting for the backstop, just months after coming to their party conference and saying that to do so would be unconscionable.

Having abandoned them after such an unambiguous and public promise, how can they trust him now – particularly because the Parliamentary arithmetic has shifted so far against Mr Johnson that the DUP’s 10 MPs can no longer even deliver him a notional majority and any deal will have to have significant support from Labour MPs and others to pass?

No-deal Brexit concerns

The parliament at Stormont has remained shut for two and a half years – though the DUP has retained influence in Westminster (Photo: Getty)

The DUP is not monolithic and some of its members are more concerned than others about the impact of a no-deal scenario. It may be that some of those members briefed The Times and either oversold how far they are prepared to compromise or presented that as the party position.

However, even if the scale of movement was exaggerated, the reason this is uncomfortable for the DUP is that the party has definitely softened its position on regulatory divergence over the last few weeks, as it stares over the precipice of no-deal.

Once it accepts that Northern Ireland can diverge from GB regulations in areas A and B, it becomes harder to make the argument that it would be a constitutional outrage to diverge from GB in areas C, D, E and scores of other areas.

However, the position on customs does not seem to have changed. And without that – as well as the sweeping regulatory divergence from GB and convergence with the EU – of the backstop, it is difficult to see how the land border can’t be kept entirely open for goods.

Cross-border traffic

However, even if there is no deal, the main cross-border traffic – people – will be unimpeded by passport control or other checks, because the UK and Ireland are firmly committed to maintain the Common Travel Area in all circumstances.

While there are many businesses and others in Northern Ireland who are either prepared to accept, or would positively welcome, the backstop, politics in Northern Ireland has never been focused on what suits commerce.

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Northern Irish voters would choose united Ireland over UK in a border poll

Voters overwhelmingly vote for parties based on their constitutional or tribal positions and in the absence of significant tax-raising powers for Stormont, tax and spend arguments are not a feature of life in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, this issue is largely seen through a constitutional lens. On that, the DUP is particularly vulnerable.

‘Constitutional purity’

Having campaigned for Brexit on the basis that it would represent a land of milk and honey, it will not be sufficient for the DUP to come out of this process and tell its voters ‘we mitigated the worst constitutional threats – Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is only slightly weakened’.

At this point, it seems that the DUP is prepared to accept some dilution of its constitutional purity in order to secure a deal because the economic impacts – particularly on agriculture – and the constitutional threats are potentially too great for it to bear.

If the DUP moves some way towards accepting elements of the backstop, that will cause strain within the party. But it also puts the ball into the EU’s – and particularly Ireland’s – court.

This may not be the basis for a deal, but at the very least it is likely to be the basis for an attempt to avoid the blame for no-deal, allowing the party to at some future juncture point back to a willingness to at least show some flexibility.

More on Northern Ireland

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Brexit deal: DUP deny report they are privately ready to ‘shift red lines’ blocking backstop progress

The DUP has responded defensively to a report claiming the unionist party may be ready to budge on its objections to the Northern Ireland backstop.

The party has solidly opposed any agreement which could see Northern Ireland diverge significantly from Great Britain in terms of customs arrangements.

But a report in The Times claimed the party could now accept “abiding by some European Union rules”, in exchange for the EU side dropping a demand for Northern Ireland to stay in a formal customs union.

The story comes as Boris Johnson has increasingly pointed to different arrangements for the nation, which has been without a devolved parliament for two and a half years.

‘Stormont lock’

But while the report relied on private remarks, the DUP was quick to publicly pour cold water on any sense that they had shifted from their original position.

“The only different arrangements we will accept for Northern Ireland are those where the Assembly has total scrutiny of EU legislation, decides it’s in the interest of Northern Ireland and doesn’t damage our relationship with the UK,” DUP MP Sammy Wilson told BBC Good Morning Ulster.

The parliament at Stormont has remained shut for two and a half years – though the DUP has retained influence in Westminster (Photo: Getty)

The issue of a “Stormont lock” emerged in negotiations during Theresa May’s tenure and is considered to be difficult because it could lead to Northern Ireland diverging from Ireland’s customs regime in major ways – making the backstop useless for keeping the border open.

The DUP has been the biggest party in the Assembly in Stormont since 2007, providing the past three First Ministers in the form of Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster.

However, because of the rules of powersharing enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, DUP leaders must serve alongside the largest nationalist party – usually Sinn Féin.

Arlene Foster tweeted in response to the claim that the DUP was changing its view: “UK must leave as one nation.

“We are keen to see a sensible deal but not one that divides the internal market of the UK.

“We will not support any arrangements that create a barrier to East West trade.

“Anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories.”

Sanitary and phytosanitary union

The issue of the backstop continues to divide the UK and the EU when it comes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

The UK’s side has proposed alternative arrangements to make it obsolete – but the EU says it has yet to receive an actual proposal.

The Prime Minister, when visiting Dublin earlier this week, raised the prospect of a “sanitary and phytosanitary union” for agrifoods between the Irish and Northern Irish jurisdictions, something which exists already ahead of Brexit.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) speaks to the media ahead of his meeting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (Photo: Getty)

DUP grandee Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC Question Time last night that he remains optimistic of a negotiated solution.

“We believe the best way to leave the European Union is with a deal and we’re working at that,” he said.

“I don’t accept that it’s impossible to get a deal, I think it is.

Some of the statements being made now by the Irish government are far more positive.

‘Beginning to see a shift’

He cited statements from the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and new EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan on willingness to consider alternative arrangements, adding: “I think we’re beginning to see a shift.”

While the DUP supported Mrs May in a confidence and supply agreement and appears to be willing to honour that agreement under Mr Johnson, the new Prime Minister does not have sufficient votes to pass any legislation, even with DUP help, after kicking out 21 Conservative MPs for rebelling.

Even a Brexit deal which commanded DUP support would require backing from other parties – most likely from Labour backbenchers. Significant numbers could be required to vote with the Government if the ERG “Spartans”, who have long opposed the Withdrawal Agreement, fail to fall in line.

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Henry Hill: Government disowns attack on Scottish judiciary and tries to reassure Unionist allies

Government retreats from ill-judged attach on Scottish court…

Yesterday the Court of Session in Scotland ruled that Boris Johnson’s advice to Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful, in a ruling which sent shockwaves through both the Westminster bubble and the legal community.

We covered this on the site yesterday, and I went into a bit more detail over on CapX about what this ruling might mean both for the present Government and for the longer-term relationship between the political and judicial elements of our constitution.

One thing I did warn ministers against was following the lead of an anonymous spokesman who, offering the Government’s first response to the judgment, appeared to call into question the impartiality of Scottish judges.

Needless to say Nicola Sturgeon was all over that at once, and whilst the Government has rightly rowed back from that line it may be too late to avoid handing the SNP another stick with which to beat the Scottish Tories at any upcoming general election.

However, the Government did receive some good news this morning when a Belfast court ruled that Brexit – even a no-deal Brexit – does not break the Belfast Agreement. We have previously said as much.

…as Johnson squares up to the Nationalists

Perhaps this will be offset by other efforts by the Prime Minister to ‘move the battlefield to Scotland’. In a trip to Aberdeen last week he moved to shore up the Conservatives’ unionist bona fides by insisting that he wouldn’t grant the Scottish Government the legal authority to hold an independence referendum – even if the SNP won a ‘landslide’ in a snap election.

He said: “People were told in 2014 that the referendum was a once in a generation event. I don’t see why we should go back on it.” The Prime Minister also unveiled an extra £200 million in central funding for Scottish farmers.

Whilst it might not be popular with the devo-max brigade, there is a very strong case for imposing proper limits on the frequency of independence plebiscites. Not only would it prevent the SNP from completely denormalising the UK and force them to focus on governing – where their record worsens by the week – but it may also be essential to the proper functioning of the very benefits of Union which the Government needs to sell voters on.

In other SNP news, it appears they may be about to deselect one of their sitting MPs. Dr Lisa Cameron failed to win a vote of Nationalist members to get re-adopted, blaming a ‘local smear campaign’ over her refusal to vote to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

DUP insist they still have clout amidst rumours Johnson might be lining up to cave on the backstop…

At this week’s ‘People’s PMQs’ Johnson once again ruled out a Northern Ireland-only backstop – but that has done little to quiet rumours that he might be about to revive it in order to pass a Brexit deal through the Commons.

Speculation has been fuelled further by apparent moves in Downing Street to clear the way for readmitting the rebels who lost the whip after voting to strip the Government of control of the Brexit negotiations – in order to protect the Prime Minister from the ‘spears’ of the European Research Group.

Despite signs that the Democratic Unionists might be open to all-island arrangements on some issues, namely agrifood, both they and the great bulk of Northern Irish unionists remain implacably opposed to any arrangement which sees their Province split away from the mainland.

Amidst reports of growing Unionist unease – not helped by reports of senior Tories saying Johnson is preparing to throw them under a bus – the DUP have been forced to insist that they still have clout at Westminster. They may now be wishing that they had opted for a deeper and longer-term arrangement with the Conservatives when it was offered to them in 2017, as their semi-detached status and 2019 renewal point are now starting to look more like a liability than a chance to extract more cash from London.

Just to reiterate that opposition to the backstop is not confined to hardliners – and Lord Ashcroft’s polling finds four unionists in five opposed to it – Lord Empey has this week set out the Ulster Unionist Party’s proposed alternatives.

Meanwhile Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and former First Minister, has announced that she will not be seeking a Westminster seat at any upcoming general election. There had been speculation she might do so lest her position as leader become untenable should Stormont remain suspended and the political centre of gravity shift back to London.

In other Ulster news, the Government has announced a shot in the arm to iconic shipbuilder Harland & Wolff with a multi-billion pound contract for new Royal Navy frigates, and Northern Irish Office minister Lord Duncan has raised eyebrows after failing to defend a senior civil servant from ferocious criticism over a controversial payment to an official ‘offended’ by a portrait of the Queen.

…as Varadkar’s relationship with them deteriorates apace

All of this comes amidst collapsing belief amongst unionists in Leo Varadkar’s good faith on the backstop. The Irish leader has also been strongly criticised by Micheál Martin, the leader of the opposition, for failing to adequately prepare Ireland for a no-deal Brexit.

Bertie Ahern, a former taoiseach, also made an important intervention to warn Dublin against trying to impose a settlement without the support of the unionists. He argued that the Belfast Agreement’s promise of equal treatment had to apply to both sides:

“Any solution has to include the unionist people because parity of esteem in the Good Friday agreement is both sides; to do a deal through Europe with Britain that creates a problem for the unionist community and will be rejected by the English nationalists in the Commons – that’s not really an option.”

Apart from the nonsensical reference to ‘English nationalists’ this is sound advice, and echoes concerns we highlighted last year about Dublin’s intensely one-sided interpretation of the Agreement.

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Now it’s two to one in UK courts declaring parliament’s suspension not a matter for the courts

The Belfast Telegraph reports 

A legal challenge in Belfast High Court that argued the Government’s Brexit strategy will damage the Northern Ireland peace process has been dismissed.

Lord Justice Bernard McCloskey delivered his ruling on Thursday morning on three joined cases against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the UK’s European Union exit.

In his written judgment, the judge said: “I consider the characterisation of the subject matter of these proceedings as inherently and unmistakably political to be beyond plausible dispute.

“Virtually all of the assembled evidence belongs to the world of politics, both national and supra-national.

“Within the world of politics the well-recognised phenomena of claim and counterclaim, assertion and counter-assertion, allegation and denial, blow and counter-blow, alteration and modification of government policy, public statements, unpublished deliberations, posturing, strategy and tactics are the very essence of what is both countenanced and permitted in a democratic society.”

He also excluded a challenge against the suspension of Parliament because the issue formed the “centrepiece” of proceedings in England and Scotland.

The Court of Appeal will hear any appeal on Friday.

Judges have set aside time, and indicated a willingness to sit over the weekend, to fast-track the hearing of any appeal.

That could potentially pave the way for the Northern Ireland challenge to be heard in the Supreme Court alongside Scottish and English cases next Tuesday.

How come the Scottish Court of Session and the leading English judges came to opposite conclusions over whether prorogation is legal?  Tony Diver in the Daily Telegraph explains an intriguing difference between Scottish and English public law

MPs who asked a Scottish court to overturn the prorogation of Parliament took on Boris Johnson using a 300 year old law brought in at the time of William of Orange, dubbed the “Scottish Magna Carta”.

A band of 76 MPs, Lords and lawyers won an appeal yesterday in Scotland’s Inner Court of Session in Edinburgh, using a case based partly on the Claim of Right Act, passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1689…..

The law enabled the Scots to forfeit James VII ( James 11 of England and Wales and Ireland)  as their king and establish their sovereign right to choose a Government.

The use of the Claim of Right Act allowed lawyers to argue that the prorogation was illegal in Scotland because it violated the principle of rule by consent.

The Act is the Scottish equivalent of the English Bill of Rights and has been dubbed the “Scottish Magna Carta” by constitutional experts.

It was used to allow Scotland to remove James VII from office and replace him with William of Orange, establishing the Parliament’s rights against the crown.

Jolyon Maugham QC, who brought the case alongside Opposition MPs and peers, said: “this case is really about the extent to which a judge wants to reach beyond a technocratic analysis to identify and secure the ultimate principles at stake. 

“What is left parliamentary democracy if it can be suspended the day after a General Election for substantially its entire term?”

The Supreme Court now has the tricky task of arbitrating between not only  divergent judgments but different systems.

Meanwhile, evidence of  a softening on the backstop although still just deniable, continues to mount

Billed as a Sun Exclusive

BORIS Johnson has told Tory rebels he is ready for “spears in my back” from party Brexiteers and the DUP— in a sign he will now try for a compromise Brexit deal.

It is the latest in a series of hints he is ready to soften his key demand that Brussels scraps the Irish backstop.

Despite the suspension of Parliament, it was another frantic day at Westminster yesterday as:

  • The PM went to great lengths to heal the Tory turmoil in the wake of the expulsion of the 21 rebels by stressing his One Nation Conservative roots.
  • He told several Cabinet ministers that he’s “basically a Brexity Hezza” — a reference to Tory wet Michael Heseltine who battled right wing PM Margaret Thatcher.
  • Boris also told a meeting of the Cabinet he was “the most liberal Conservative PM in decades.”
  • DUP leader Arlene Foster backed the PM’s more conciliatory approach for a Brexit deal following talks in No10.
  • A senior Labour MP claimed as many as 50 of his colleagues are now ready to back a Brexit deal in the Commons next month to avoid yet another delay.

Cabinet ministers led by Michael Gove are drawing up an offer that would return the Tory whip to the 21 rebels if they agree to sign up to a new election manifesto.

But the PM’s Brexit strategy got a boost last night from DUP leader Arlene Foster, who backed the more conciliatory approach he has taken over the last few days.

Speaking following a lengthy meeting at No10, she said she was “encouraged” by his reassurance to Irish PM Leo Varadkar on Monday that he was straining every sinew for a deal.

And, in another sign of movement, Mrs Foster said a “sensible deal” was “the best way forward for everyone.”

During the meeting the PM reassured Mrs Foster and the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds he was not considering a Northern Ireland-only backstop, which would put a border down the Irish Sea.

So does Johnson treat the DUP as allies still or “ spears in my back”?

A Tory rebel is quoted; ““Boris is Janus-faced. He has to be to survive.

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DUP’s Policy Director Hints at Boris Bridge Support

This morning it has been reported Boris is proposing a new 12-mile bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland to mitigate the backstop. Days since last Boris bridge suggestion: 0

The DUP believes such an infrastructure project could help solve  a “major positive impact on both countries economically”. And could act as a big bung to keep them on side during tricky EU negotiations…

Fuelling speculation that the ambitious project may be imminent, the DUP’s Director of Policy, Lee Reynolds, Tweeted the link to a BBC News article about an even longer bridge entitled “China opens ‘longest’ sea bridge”. Good to see the DUP and Number 10 once again engineering civility…

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Backstop fever subsided as quickly as it flaired. But the virus is still live…

This must be the barmiest idea emerging from the current bout of backstop fever – an “exclusive” from Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News.   

Boris Johnson has told government officials to explore the possibility of building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.. The prime minister wants to know “where this money could come from” and “the risks around the project” – which appear to include “WW2 munitions in the Irish Sea…”

The DUP, the party supporting the Conservatives in Parliament, believes a bridge could break the Brexit impasse by removing the need for a border in the Irish Sea.

Who takes literally “a border in the Irish Sea,” as if customs cutters would order ships to hove too to be searched in the North Channel or somewhere off Loch Ryan or the Isle of Man?  It means checks at GB ports or nearby warehouses – strictly land based Cathy! A bridge would make no difference.

T he FT  are prepared to damp down the fever but still pins hopes on a role for the Assembly..

Mr Johnson on Monday met Arlene Foster, DUP leader, and has told the unionist party he will not support a Northern Ireland-only backstop. Mrs Foster has called it “undemocratic and unconstitutional”. She said after the meeting: “During today’s meeting, the prime minister confirmed his rejection of the Northern Ireland-only backstop and his commitment to securing a deal which works for the entire United Kingdom as well as our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.”

But Mr Johnson has accepted that Northern Ireland could effectively remain part of the EU single market for agriculture and food — throwing up new checks on the Irish Sea — if the Stormont assembly was reconvened and gave its consent..

A role for the Assembly should be treated with scepticism. Dublin and the EU have already dismissed the idea of giving an Assembly a veto on the backstop. If it were to acquire one it would breach the UK principle of the all UK referendum decision; Scotland would demand  a veto  on Leave. If not a veto, what else is there?

Would a Brexit role act as an incentive for restoring the Assembly? The only viable role would surely favour nationalists politically – a strengthening of north-south ties to develop the economy.  In economic terms this is entirely sensible and would answer the prayers of many. But what is there in the proposal to cause a switch of sentiment in the DUP from the constitutional case to the economic?  Sinn Fein would always follow Dublin and the DUP would always be denied their opportunity to join GB and strike a great free trade deal with Uzbekistan or Uruguay or  wherever.

The stronger argument for a shift is the perceived change in the political equation. Johnson has lost his majority despite the DUP  and has to build up a new one if he’s serious about a deal.  A cross  party group convened by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock claims the support of  at least 50 MPs for a viable deal.  If it gels it could cancel out the DUP and at least some of the right wing Spartans who refuse to see beyond No Deal, says Paul Waugh in Huffpost.

 Labour’s Caroline Flint suggested there were 50 of her colleagues who would back a deal, which would be more than enough to outnumber the estimated 15 or so hardcore Spartans.

Although it sounds bonkers given the bad blood of the past week, the calculation in No.10 is that many of the 21 anti-no-deal Tory rebels would probably vote for a new Brexit deal. The Spartans however have nowhere else to go. 

One pro-Brexit former Cabinet minister told me today of a new plan to rout the ERG, if needed. Under this option, the PM puts his revised deal to the Commons as another ‘confidence’ vote. Any MP who failed to back it would have the whip withdrawn and deselected from standing in the following snap election. “It will be his best chance to get rid of the fucking nutcases,” the ex-minister added.

If the “nutcases” have nowhere else to go, are the DUP any different?

 

 

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Brexit talks: Boris Johnson ‘may be prepared to back down on Irish border’

Speculation was mounting that Boris Johnson could be ready to make a compromise on Brexit. The summit came as a senior EU figure claimed that the “penny is finally dropping with the UK” over a potential solution to the Northern Ireland border that could break the deadlock in Westminster, Dublin and Brussels.

The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit, fuelling speculation that the UK will propose an alternative backstop arrangement this week. Mr Johnson’s EU negotiator, David Frost, will hold talks in Brussels on Wednesday and Friday.

Suggestions that a compromise could be made around a Northern Ireland-only backstop were, however, dismissed by Mrs Foster and Downing Street.

But there could be movement over a special agri-food area covering Ireland and Northern Ireland, with alternative arrangements for other trade. Before the No 10 talks, Phil Hogan, who was nominated as the EU’s new trade commissioner and is Irish, fuelled speculation that there could be movement on the backstop – which has been the major obstacle to the Brexit withdrawal agreement being passed by Parliament.

The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit
The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit (Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Cross community support

Mrs Foster said: “History teaches us that any deal relating to Northern Ireland which cannot command cross community support is doomed to failure. That is why the Northern Ireland backstop is flawed.”

Mr Hogan told the Irish Times: “I remain hopeful that the penny is finally dropping with the UK that there are pragmatic and practical solutions can actually be introduced into the debate at this stage that may find some common ground between the EU and the UK.”

Mr Johnson has expressed interest in an all-Ireland agri-food area, as agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Deal stopper — Agreement key to unlocking progress

The Irish backstop has become the key sticking point in getting a Brexit deal passed by Parliament.

It was written into the Withdrawal Agreement as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, meaning that during the transition period between the UK’s departure from the EU and a trade deal being agreed, the UK and Ireland would stay inside an EU customs territory. A Northern Ireland-only backstop would keep that nation in a common customs arrangement with Ireland but separate to the rest of the UK, creating a border down the Irish Sea.

While the DUP is opposed to this, it has indicated it would be open to some divergence on trade rules between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

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Slugger O'Toole 2019-09-10 13:04:48

The SDLP still haven’t managed to shake off  strategic ineptitude. They’ve   achieved the worst of both worlds by wishing former SDLP leader and MP Margaret Ritchie well but “ fundamentally disagree” with her decision to go to the Lords. This is in fact an enlightened  move by Margaret which deserves SDLP backing.

The SDLP attack Sinn Fein for persisting with abstention from the Commons when their voting presence might have made a difference in narrower Brexit votes.  The absence of a nationalist voice at Westminster is glaring.  Ian Paisley took a small trick yesterday when he associated the absent and  defeated SDLP with his tributes to the retiring Speaker. And while the SDLP opinion is split over abortion, a reform position was  missing  in the  exchanges about the forthcoming legislation in the Commons last night.

While the SDLP are hardly alone in their disapproval of the unelected second chamber, their virtue signalling is badly out of date.  Lords  appointments are regulated  by an independent commission and there is no Tory majority. By general consent it does a better job in scrutinising legislation than the Commons.

Having suffered a Commons whitewash the SDLP should welcome the restoration of a nationalist voice at Westminster and face down the obvious Sinn Fein jibes . That’s what they’re more afraid of than anything else.

Because of prorogation, the hot issues of direct rule, the draft Legacy bill  and the forthcoming enactment of same sex marriage and abortion reform  will almost certainly be denied the level of promised scrutiny before the 21 October deadline for restoring the Assembly.  Nevertheless the new secretary of state Julian Smith, although peeved that he hasn’t been consulted about prorogation but still in office, confirmed his commitment to reform  

Despite the truncated debate, I underscore my assurance to the House that I will continue to uphold the letter and the spirit of my obligations.. On abortion reform..

.. it is the Government’s preference that any questions of reform on these important, sensitive and devolved issues are considered in the right place by a restored Executive and a functioning Assembly. However, we recognise that a majority of MPs want to ensure that reform happens if we continue to see an absence of devolved government. From 22 October, the specific criminal law in Northern Ireland will fall away, and a criminal moratorium on prosecutions will come into place. I have instructed my Department, working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Government Equalities Office to develop an appropriate new legal framework that will be in operation by 31 March 2020 if that proves to be the case.

Ian Paisley rushed up to object.

Does  the Secretary of State realise that the legacy of what he has announced is complete and total legal chaos from 21 October to March next year? There will be no regulatory framework in place, and anything goes when it comes to the termination of the lives of innocent children. Is that the legacy that he wants? Is that the blood on the hands that he wants?

Reform champion Stella Creasy  rejected Paisley ‘s “ chaos “ but acknowledged the need for greater clarity.

I agree with the concerns raised across the House about the interim period, and about what will happen when we decriminalise sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 on 22 October if the Assembly is not reconstituted. I note that the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 will remain in place, so the idea that there will not be any regulation at all simply is not true. We must deal with fact, not scaremongering, in this debate. But still, can he confirm that he is talking to the royal colleges—the actual medical experts?

With 35 days to go, what is the Secretary of State’s message to women in Northern Ireland who will need an abortion on 22 October, whether because they have a fatal foetal abnormality, are a victim of rape or incest, or simply do not want to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy?… His own report says that there is not a clear path. Will he tell us a bit more about how he is going to set that out and what international models he is looking at? Above all, can he give us the confidence tonight that when he is managing this interim process, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is facing a prosecution because she got abortion pills for her daughter who was in an abusive relationship will not face prosecution from 22 October? If we do one thing in this House this evening that is constructive, let us take the stress and pressure off that family.

.. So will the Secretary of State set out precisely what regulations he is looking at now so that when we get to that 35-day period we can shorten it and give everybody here comfort that the human rights of the women of Northern Ireland will continue to be upheld?

But time had run out for Smith to reply in the House. The shape  of these reforms is now uncertain. While they are due to return when the Commons returns on 14 October,  the crisis  over No Deal and an election may force postponement until after the expected election and a new Queen’s Speech containing the government’s  programme for the new parliament. And that’s a whole new ballgame. A dying parliament cannot bind its successor.  And Boris Johnson is opposed to Westminster taking action.

With direct rule in prospect  for a period, Westminster assumes a greater importance over NI domestic affairs. If non- abstentionists can’t manage to get elected to the Commons, this is no time to  refuse to go for second best in the Upper House, with its greater opportunities for scrutiny.

 

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Will Arlene be confronted with an amended backstop today? How would she react? (No prizes!)

I was watching the Commons feed last night and missed Nick Watt’s report on Newsnight, raising the hare  that Boris Johnson was  going further than an all-Ireland agri-zone and was about to revive the NI specific backstop.  Sam McBride of The Newsletter was watching.

Last night’s report suggests that Mr Johnson may be preparing to abandon the DUP for the second time in six months, despite the party having ensured he became Prime Minister..  Newsnight said Mr Johnson was understood to be concerned about the long-term uncertainty which could flow from a no-deal departure from the EU and was therefore interested in a “Canada Plus” free trade agreement with the EU.

Newsnight said that the two senior Tories who are familiar with Mr Johnson’s current thinking said that he is willing to contemplate a version of the “Northern Ireland only backstop” which would see Northern Ireland remaining tied to EU rules in areas “where there are already elements of an all Ireland economy” such as agriculture and electricity.

By contrast, the rest of the UK would be “free to chart its own course…[which] would create a border down the Irish Sea”, Mr Watt reported. He said that the government would be “wary of calling the new mechanism a backstop”.

The Remainer senior Tory told Newsnight: “Boris Johnson is not a unionist. So he would think nothing of throwing the DUP under the bus if that was in his interests.”

However, the Brexiteer insisted that Mr Johnson would not abandon the DUP and believed that Mrs Foster could sign up to a deal if three conditions were met.

He said those conditions would be:

the re-establishment of devolution with a role for Stormont in the deal;

codicils confirming the government’s commitment to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK;

 and the areas where Northern Ireland would remain closely aligned to the EU would be in areas which are currently or largely run on an all Ireland basis.

Meanwhile, a journalist from The Sunday Times has reported the threat of significant loyalist unrest if they believe Brexit undermines Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. John Mooney said: “I met a number of loyalists connected to UVF in Belfast recently. The message was clear. Anything that changes status of Northern Ireland will be greeted as the start of a process to lead to United Ireland. I would anticipate serious civil disturbance.”

There was fluttering on Twitter last night when Nigel Dodds  told Newsnight  that the DUP may accept “arrangements” which align Northern Ireland with some EU rules, contrary to the rest of the UK, so long as Stormont consents to it/

The Newsletter helpfully amplified his comments .

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds told Newsnight that he was “quite relaxed about the way things are going” and “I think Boris Johnson knows what he is about”. When asked about the possibility of Mr Johnson agreeing to an Irish Sea border, Mr Dodds, who had been chatting to Mr Johnson in the MPs’ dining room last night, said: “I don’t expect Boris Johnson to do anything of the sort”.

If Nigel Dodds was sniffing a sell out surely he would have sounded the alarm. He isn’t likely to be easily conned. But who trusts Boris Johnson? The story keeps running. The BBC’s Laura Kuennesberg tweets.

DUP leader Arlene Foster in London today – sources playing down idea that somehow a NI backstop can be resurrected as a magic solution to getting a deal done – she’s likely to see Johnson sometime this afternoon.

Odd how English MPs with bigger fish to fry take the return of a functioning   Assembly for granted; it shows how desperate they are for  a solution  But no doubt she will get some sort of reassurance. Will Johnson try out an amended backstop on her? The present Commons arithmetic may be in flux but he’d be crazy to abandon  the DUP  in advance of  the election.

The backstop remains an issue, perhaps the issue – amazingly, since  the debate on all the options from “Canada” to “Norway” are in abeyance.  A backstop “with lipstick “ as part of a tweaked withdrawal agreement  has massive attractions.  They’re not there yet but the remarks of Johnson and Dodds may suggest to hopefuls a direction of travel towards that destination. This may or may not be wishful thinking.

An amended backstop would put the rebel majority on the spot.  Assuming No Deal is  now guaranteed, they lack an agreed, coherent alternative to a backstop Deal. Labour say they’d negotiate their own better deal (as unspecified as the Tories’) and vote   to call the election. They’d put that deal to the people in the election while allowing their members to campaign for Remain – in other words, against their own deal. As Johnson jeered across the despatch box to them last night, this is absurd.

On Sky this morning that wily operator Bertie Ahern  poured cold water on the backstop speculation/ Any  NI specific deal would have to be negotiated with unionists by “ the Barnier commission”. Parity of esteem applies to unionists too, he insisted.  The British legal system will not allow the government to defy the law. The UK will not leave on 31 October and the whole affair will be knocked forward to the Spring.

So there you have it. For the moment.

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Arlene Foster “we must engage with those of a nationalist background”

DUP Leader, Arlene Foster spoke at an event titled Vision for Unionism: Beyond 2021.

First, we must engage with any, and all, supporters of the Union, regardless of whether we hold fundamentally different views on party, policy or society.

Today at this initial event, we talk amongst the DUP, but this is only the opening stage of this work and from this afternoon on, we must go out, talk and listen to other Unionists. We must find areas of common interest and common cause to work for the common good of Unionism.

People’s party political labels or beliefs will not hold us back from engaging.

Unionism must earn the votes of as broad a coalition as possible. Some may be Unionists of the very smallest u, and some may not even consider themselves unionists at all.

The talents and energies of all must be harnessed.

Second, we must engage Northern Ireland’s minority ethnic and new communities. Multi-generational ethnic communities became an intrinsic part of Northern Ireland. This diversity has been augmented by the larger migrations of the last twenty years.

Many came even in our most torrid days. More came as we built and enjoyed our richly deserved peace. They came to make their own contribution to our renewal. They have chosen to make Northern Ireland their home, some as part of their British dream. How some were treated, too often was a source of shame rather than pride. Minority ethnic participation in our politics as representatives or voters remains disproportionately low. How can we do more to help involve, integrate and celebrate how these citizens of Northern Ireland enrich our society?

Third, we must engage with those of a nationalist background. This is the strand of work that will be treated with the greatest scepticism, and will require the longest-term commitment, a generational commitment. We are not planting seeds for Unionism in the hope of a quick harvest. We are planting oaks to grow deep roots, and it is future generations, who will reap the benefit of our work.

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Is the backstop beginning to slide towards a deal the DUP won’t like?

On the eve of Boris Johnson’s visit to Dublin it comes as no surprise that Sinn Fein claims that Leo Varadkar has conceded the backstop “at the eleventh hour.”  Deniable though it may be, do they yet make a plausible case, as the squeeze tightens on Dublin to try to reconcile the defence of the single market with the serious threat to jobs and the all-island economy? Does Vardakar’s concession on the one hand  that checks will be phased in “over time” and yet may take place “close to the border” give him the worst of both worlds, as well has handing Boris Johnson a vital get out of jail card in producing a Deal after all?

RTÉ’s Europe Editor Tony Connelly surmises that perhaps officials in Brussels hope by adopting a “softly softly” approach they may be able to address the issue in an inconspicuous manner…While there will be political pressure on Leo Varadkar and his team to clarify where checks will be following Brexit, it is clear those details are still under negotiation with the European Commission. That is why every utterance by the Taoiseach and his colleagues will be parsed and analysed for any new details over the coming weeks.

Either way, the option of an “inconspicuous manner” of dealing with the backstop will reduce sharply over the next few weeks.

Peter Foster Europe editor of the Daily Telegraph, who is that rare being, an objective analyst of all positions, has been thinking aloud on Twitter about where politically the backstop is now.

Are ( the Irish government’s current statements) an attempt to finesse an issue that have been dancing around for two years now – how can EU commitment to peace be reconciled with demands to protect integrity on EU single market?. Where does the line lie?

The key questions..

Because if the EU is willing to turn a blind eye, then why don’t we do a deal on the Irish border now? What have we all been arguing about these last three years? And if it turns out in a ‘no deal’ that Ireland/Commission has been lying about binary nature of border.

 Of course, this briefing could be intended to reassure Irish readers that a ‘no deal’ border won’t be so bad and that the EU will give Dublin a soft ride…but they can read the press in Europe too.

And that raises big Qs about Ireland’s commitment to single market. Because @simoncoveney can’t say Ireland will do what is necessary to defend position in single market on Wednesday and have Europe reading on Saturday that it’s all fungible. It’s a bad look.

It is also not my understanding of where Ireland and @LeoVaradkar

are on this issue. A few months back they were dabbling with idea of checks with EU26, but seemed to accept message from Commission & member states that it was fairly binary proposition.

Either Ireland has status apart, OR it has place in Single Market. If not, and Alternative Arrangements can make border function, then why not go for it now?

As I wrote in June, member states have put Ireland under clear pressure to say how a border will operate in reality in a no deal – since EU interest require the protection of the single market one way or the other. And if Ireland doesn’t want ‘yellow pack’ (cheapo) single market membership it will HAVE to make hard choices. And member states, like Poland for example, who put up border at accession, will have limited patience on this point. And Dublin knows it.

The ultimate point is this. Dublin has argued (right I think) that the all-Ireland economy is a lynchpin of peace & stability – even if SM integrity can have some fluidity – this concept does not.

Because once there is arbitrage/cracks in system, how long before the paramilitaries start to exploit them – before we embark on the slippery slope back to turf wars, snitches, guns and men lying on the side of the road with broken knees. These are very difficult issues, but suffice to say that if EU member states accept no deal fallout on basis that Ireland has agreed to defend Single Market etc – and find out it could have been prevented all along, that will be very difficult for Ireland.

I think there are flaws in Foster’s argument.

First, on the threat to peace, the big question an English commentator might miss is this: Would protests escalating to violence or outright attacks take place inside the Republic? That would be a huge switch of strategy for any group purporting to follow the republican tradition – leaving aside their capacity to do so .

It also prompts the thought that the claims of the threat to the overall peace process (as distinct from the political process) are exaggerated – not that they can ever be dismissed altogether.  Sinn Fein would come under huge pressure to condemn them and unite opinion against them with whatever qualifications, if it wants to be taken seriously as a potential party of government.  True, smuggling on an international scale unknown in the days before the single market and far beyond the ken of the likes of Slab Murphy would also be a tremendous headache. It would  however quicken the need for  final resolution surely little different from the backstop.

And secondly, the EU and Ireland will have to sort their own dilemma by 17 October at the latest. Ironically it’s Johnson who is giving then cover by failing so far to negotiate on the basis of firm British proposals to which the EU and Ireland will have to respond.

Tony Connelly lays out the present position as seen from Brussels and Dublin

Extracts…

Boris Johnson has followed through on his threat to try and eliminate the backstop and in the process is tearing up the commitments the British government made to protecting the all-island economy and North-South cooperation in the Joint Report of December 2017…

On Tuesday, Brexit coordinators from 27 member states were briefed by Stephanie Riso, a senior EU Task Force official.  She told diplomats that there was nothing on the table from London.

“There are no concrete proposals,” said one official briefed on the meeting. “Nothing has been put on the table, not even really a proper sketch or hint of a plan. We’re waiting. But for the moment there is zilch.”

It was also becoming clearer Johnson was reneging on the Joint Report commitments to protecting the all-island economy and North-South cooperation. “It’s moving from frictionless border to as little friction as possible,” said the official, “which is not the same thing.  That would have a huge impact on the Northern Ireland economy.”.. Indeed, drowned out by this week’s Westminster drama was sharper evidence of the potential impact of a No Deal Brexit on Northern Ireland.

On Wednesday, Karen Wheeler, the former head of the UK’s Border Delivery Group told the Commons Brexit committee that London’s plan not to impose any checks or tariffs on goods coming in from the South would cause problems “within days, even hours” for Northern producers. Such a scenario would only be sustainable for “a number of months”.

In another chamber, Andrew McCormick, the top civil servant in the Executive Office warned of the social impact this would have.”.. If there’s No Deal there is a hard economic border immediately,” he told MPs. “All trade [in the South] has to comply [with EU single market rules] or be illegal. If there are no checks there’s no legal basis to trade. So our producers would be unable to export to the south unless they pay the tariff, and the tariff would make them unviable.”

Senior figures in the Northern Ireland Civil Service have been issuing increasingly stark warnings to Whitehall about the impact of No Deal on Northern Ireland, with mixed results.

“Officials have got it and understood it,” says one source, “and some are saying it to ministers privately. There’s still a bit of denial at ministerial level. It just doesn’t suit their narrative that No Deal is manageable.”

Amid such intensifying anxiety Dublin, Belfast and Brussels are all wondering what Boris Johnson’s ultimate plan for the Irish border is….

His chief negotiator was vague about what would replace the backstop if, as London is demanding, it is stripped out of the Withdrawal Agreement, but the assumption is that Johnson will push for some concoction of what are known as “alternative arrangements”….

Dublin and the EU have a fundamental problem with alternative arrangements.

That is, that whereas the backstop reconciles Brexit and the Irish border in a holistic way, with a blanket solution that would mean both sides of the Irish border following the same rules, alternative arrangements, on the other hand, takes as the starting point the reality that both sides of the border would be following different rules…

if the backstop is replaced by alternative arrangements then the rules on both sides of the border will be different. That means the authorities will need to know what is crossing and how to prevent it crossing, if necessary.

The border then becomes harder, with more controls, more inspections, higher levels of surveillance, the use of approved and unapproved crossing points and so on.

Smartphone apps, barcode scanning, Radio Frequency Identification systems, GPS tracking, drive-thru X-ray scanners are all coming on stream in the management of borders globally, but they all require cost, personnel and infrastructure…

How close is London to putting forward concrete proposals on alternative arrangements?

The process appears to be fraught with the complexity of getting all of Whitehall familiar enough with the issues in an Irish context in order to put forward credible ideas that the EU, which is already sceptical, will simply reject because they don’t pass the five tests.

There are also signs of unease among external experts in the technical advisory group that the group risks providing Boris Johnson with the cover that he is serious, especially since he seems in thrall to the non-government Alternative Arrangements Commission.

One member of the technical panel is alarmed that, given the evaporating time frame, there is no sense of urgency, pointing out that there have only been two plenary sessions and three workshops since it was launched in March.

“If they were serious they would have called group meetings urgently, around the clock, to consider these things in all seriousness and detail,” the expert says, “but there’s been no sense of building on the expertise”.

However, another panel member takes a more sympathetic approach. “The civil service have been very engaged,” the expert says. “They’ve had Michael Gove, Steve Barclay along, relatively senior people. When you’re in those meetings it feels like they’re taking it seriously.”

One member of the panel believes that what he calls a “less structured approach” is down to the fact that Whitehall is having to move faster than the civil service normally does. He also believes it is vital that he can cast a cold eye over ideas that simply won’t work.

“Some of the things tabled raised my eyebrows but it may be necessary that they’re tabled in order to once and for all draw them to a conclusion,” he says. “Perhaps they need me to slaughter the unicorns to make sure they are slaughtered.”

For now the opening exchanges between David Frost and the European Commission give little hope that an agreement can be reached by the end of October, notwithstanding the parliamentary efforts to rule out a No Deal exit.

There is increasing speculation that Boris Johnson could be forced to revert to the Northern Ireland-specific backstop. That would at a stroke remove the claim that the UK is being trapped and unable to pursue an independent trade policy and the Commission has let it be known it’s a change they could make overnight.

The DUP would be furious, but there are precious few options remaining. It may be conceivable that some “alternative arrangements” could simultaneously be given a higher status, with the option that they might take over some of the role played by the backstop.

“The UK is in such a bind at the moment that they may need something,” says one source close to the alternative arrangements activity, “something that gives confidence to those who are worried that the EU have trapped the UK and it can’t get out”.

Boris Johnson has talked about an all-Ireland animal health and food safety regime, and hinted there such an idea could extend to industrial goods.

The problem is that there is no detail on this, and also that the more he heads in that direction, the more it starts to look like the backstop.

Connelly’s technical points refer to the most comprehensive analysis of the various alternative border arrangements produced last week by Katy Hayward the leading expert from Queen’s   

 

 

 

 

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Henry Hill: Scottish Nationalists, Democratic Unionists, and Sinn Fein put themselves on a war footing

SNP chomping at the bit for an election as Sturgeon tees up referendum demand…

Although the Prime Minister’s bid for an election was defeated in the House of Commons last night, there remains a general expectation that Britain will go to the polls sooner rather than later – and unionists and nationalists have been gearing up.

The Scottish National Party are chomping at the bit for an election. This is unsurprising, because polling suggests that they are on course to win back most of their 2017 losses and return to a ballpark of around 50 seats, with the Conservatives reduced to around three.

As a result, the Nationalists’ current Commons cohort may play a key role if Boris Johnson does manage to secure the House’s backing for a dissolution – although it suits neither party to be seen to be collaborating with the other.

…as the First Minister hits out at plans for cybernat party…

Sturgeon has also criticised plans by Stuart Campbell, the Bath-based leader of cybernat site Wings over Scotland, to set up a new separatist party to contest the next Holyrood elections. He believes that by offering pro-independence voters more options on the list vote – alongside the Greens – he can maximise the efficiency of the anti-UK vote and the number of separatist MSPs returned.

Whilst the First Minister has good reason to be wary of such a party – it would represent a more populist stain of nationalism than her own, and likely offer a vehicle to the SNP’s unreconciled ‘Salmondites’ – the electoral logic of multiple parties for list seats is sound. Something for advocates of a ‘united unionist party’ – which now includes Adam Tomkins, a senior Scottish Conservative MSP – to bear in mind.

This comes as the Scottish Government prepares to demand that Westminster cede them the power to hold a re-run of the referendum on Scottish independence at some point in 2020. Holyrood has already prepared legislation to hold a plebiscite, but has no legal authority to authorise one as the constitution is – quite rightly – reserved to Westminster.

…and DUP and Sinn Fein set themselves on a war footing

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland both the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein are on a war footing. The latter have announced that they may be willing to collaborate with other anti-Brexit parties in order to unseat DUP MPs – an alliance absent in 2017, when the Unionists made advances. Although at least once analyst thinks that both parties should be confident of holding their seats, an anti-DUP alliance could threaten seats such as Belfast South and Belfast North.

One fun story which ran this week was the suggestion that Kate Hoey, the Ulster-born Labour MP and hard Brexiteer, might stand for the DUP in North Down. This followed stories that the Vauxhall MP had hinted she might stand for a party other than Labour – most likely the Brexit Party.

Although she is close to the Unionists on many issues she would be a poor fit for the seat, and so it is not surprising that she has dismissed such claims this morning.

Arlene Foster, the former First Minister and leader of the DUP, has also been floated as a possible high-profile candidate for the last unionist seat in Northern Ireland outside her party’s hands. Unless Stormont returns, her position as leader will grow increasingly difficult as power shifts further to Westminster.

Finally Danny Kinahan, the former MP for South Antrim and champion of liberal unionism, has announced his intention to contest his seat again at any upcoming contest. He won it during the brief renaissance of the Ulster Unionist Party at the 2015 election, before falling victim to the DUP surge two years later.

Court rejects Scottish bid to overrule prorogation of Parliament

A rare bit of good news for Boris Johnson this week as yet another of Jolyon Maugham’s crowd-funded legal challenges to the Government ended in failure.

Lord Docherty ruled that the move was inherently political and thus non-justiciable. He said: “Accountability for the advice is to Parliament and ultimately the electorate and not to the courts. In my opinion, there has been no contravention of the rule of law.”

This cuts to the heart of the philosophical dispute between those who advocate for a so-called ‘political constitution’ – wherein the highest authorities are the politicians and, ultimately, the electorate – and those who desire a so-called ‘constitution of laws’, with that role de facto played by the courts. This dispute was referenced in submissions to the court.

A separate case, brought by high-profile Remainer litigants including Gina Miller and Jo Swinson, will be heard at the High Court in London this afternoon.

Republicans in the spotlight over weird donation

In other Northern Irish news, Sinn Fein are facing scrutiny after a man who lived in a caravan left the Party millions of pounds – one of the Province’s largest-ever political donations – in his will.

Not only was the £2.5 million sum higher than initially reported, and the will signed just a month before the IRA’s 1997 ceasefire, but the gentleman in question named two senior IRA figures as its executors. Not suspicious at all.

Meanwhile Michele O’Neill, the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, faces a challenge for the vice-presidency of Sinn Fein from John O’Dowd, another MLA and former Stormont education minister.

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“This is our last chance to deal with the Troubles legacy”

Academics who produced a critique of the Stormont House Agreement (Legacy) Bill have mounted a powerful defence of the Bill itself and their 100 pages of “tweaks” of it before the Commons NI Committee. The essence of their strong rebuttal of Ulster Unionist attacks is that their holistic approach acknowledges where the balance of responsibility properly lies for Troubles deaths. The Bill would replace a piecemeal approach to Troubles cases carried out by a reluctant PSNI which for some has created a perception of bias against the security forces. Some rebalancing  however is necessary because up to 1977 at least, security forces actions were seldom investigated.

After months of formal consultation followed by the usual inertia and deadlock, the Bill is now awaiting action by whatever UK government we find ourselves with in the coming months.   The Bill would set up an independent  Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to investigate all Troubles deaths whether as yet  uninvestigated or where new investigations are needed ; an  Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR)  to enable victims and survivors of the Troubles to seek and privately receive information;   an Oral History Archive; and an Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) – to promote reconciliation and commission a report on patterns and themes from independent academic experts.

Team leader Prof Kieran McEvoy  confronted unionist criticisms raised by DUP MP Gregory Campbell that the Bill and his team were biased against former security forces. “  If all this falls apart and the mechanisms are not established.. the piecemeal approach focused on state actors will continue. The model Bill moves things away from a state centred approach and points out that paramilitaries were responsible for 99% of deaths.. This is the last chance to do this.”

Daniel Holder of the Committee for the Administration  of Justice explained that the investigations into the conduct of the security forces were needed because the rule of law scarcely applied to them up to 1974 and was not satisfactory until 2004. 74 were killed by the military between 1969 and 74. There were no prosecutions, and investigations by the Royal Military Police were “managerial”, with some investigations lasting just 15 minutes. On the other hand the RUC were weighed down by the sheer weight of violent incidents.

The team were critical of calls for an amnesty or a statue of limitations made by the Commons Defence Committee. An amnesty applying to only completed investigations raises the question of what would happen after fresh or reopened investigations. And amnesty for former security forces would lead inevitably to an amnesty for former paramilitaries.

“30 to 40,000 people were convicted and went to prison.. There is not going to a larger number of new prosecutions. That is legal fact. We have to be honest with victims and not oversell.. But the balance in prosecutions does not stack up”, said Prof McEvoy.

“Where’s the evidence of state wrongdoing?” asked Gregory Campbell.

Plenty in the Stevens and Police Ombudsman reports, retorted Daniel Holder. 207 of those convicted were state agents.

In   his sharpest reply to UUP criticisms McEvoy added: If this is given a fair wind and although imperfect, it will address the needs of victims. Dumping the Stormont House Agreement is morally outrageous.. This is our moment to stand up and deliver for victims.”   

The absence of nationalist MPs to put questions is glaring and unfortunate. On the other hand, DUP and Conservative MPs although challenging were far from dismissive. Judging by the model Bill teams reception before the committee, the Legacy Bill stands a chance of implementation. The main obstacle may be the ill thought out hankering of some Conservative MPs and ministers for a limited amnesty for soldiers. That battle continues to be fought  inside the deeply divided Conservative party, so expect no early results.   The whole hearing is an absorbing watch on Parliament TV.

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The Alliance Party surge could spell trouble for the DUP at Westminster

With a UK general election expected to be weeks away, local parties are bracing themselves for another round of elections, on what would be the eighth occasion that Northern Ireland has gone to the polls since 2015. Given that the Conservative government relies upon the DUP’s 10 MPs for their wafer-thin majority, the battle for Westminster in Northern Ireland is likely to receive more attention in Great Britain than historically has been the case.

The big story of recent elections has been the rise of the “neithers” – parties who do not designate as either unionist or nationalist; in particular the Alliance Party which made a number of gains at this year’s local elections and saw party leader Naomi Long elected to the European Parliament.

The chart at the top of the page shows how the main parties have fared in elections since the 2015 general election, and voting intention figures from a recent Lucid Talk poll.

The poll is striking in that it shows that for the Alliance Party, rather than the European elections being a one-off result owing to the widespread popularity of their party leader, that their support at an upcoming general election may even exceed their European performance.

If this poll is an accurate gauge of public opinion in Northern Ireland, then it could be a forewarning of a radical redrawing of Northern Ireland’s electoral map, which could see the DUP being challenged seriously in their heartland seats for the first time since they overthrew the UUP to become the largest unionist party.

To see why, consider the table below, which shows an estimate for first preference votes cast at this year’s local elections in each constituency. Overall, across Northern Ireland, the DUP obtained 24.1% of first preference votes, whilst Alliance polled 11.5%.

Even when Alliance Party support was only at 11.5% across Northern Ireland, they were essentially tied with the DUP for the largest party in terms of electoral support in both East and South Belfast, and only 3% behind the DUP in North Down, where independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon is the incumbent MP.

However, if the Lucid Talk poll is accurate, this suggests that Alliance support has virtually doubled since the local elections on the 2nd of May, and in fact that that their support has even ticked up since Naomi Long’s victory three weeks later.

The map below shows how Alliance support was distributed across Northern Ireland. Worryingly for the DUP, it is quite efficiently geographically clustered in and around the Belfast commuter belt. They perform poorly in areas west of the Bann where they have a zero chance of winning. The DUP, by comparison, frequently poll between 10% and 20% in areas such as Foyle where they have no chance whatsoever at Westminster.

If the Alliance Party can build upon their European election result, and the gap between them and the DUP remains in single figures, they could find themselves in competitive races with the DUP in East Antrim, South Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford, as well as in South and East Belfast. The DUP are also vulnerable to a challenge from Sinn Féin in North Belfast. Only the three DUP seats in East Londonderry, Upper Bann and North Antrim would be considered safe.

Given the DUP’s role in propping up the Conservative minority administration at Westminster, Alliance may also be the beneficiary of tactical votes from other party supporters who may be lured by the prospect of unseating DUP incumbents who may previously have been seen as untouchable.

That said, the DUP as it currently stands are favourites to win in all of the seats that they are defending outside Belfast. However, many of their MPs may be about to fight their first competitive election for quite some time.

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#GE19 or #GE20: what to expect

 

With speculation mounting that we may see a general election either by the end of the year, or early in 2020 now feels like an appropriate time to look at the results of the 2017 Westminster election to remind us of the current state of play.

Following a walking holiday in Wales at Easter 2017 Theresa May called a snap general election in order to give herself an increased, working majority in the Commons so that she could deliver Brexit by 31st March 2019. Things didn’t quite work out how she planned and in order to stay in power she needed to negotiate a confidence and supply deal with the DUP. Whilst calling the general election had consequences across the UK, in Ireland, and across Europe, it also changed the face of Northern Irish politics. When the dust had settled, Theresa May had handed the DUP a central role in Westminster, but more significantly the election brought about the total polarisation of local politics, with the DUP and Sinn Féín wiping out the SLDP and UUPs’ Westminster teams.

Five of Northern Ireland’s eighteen Westminster seats changed hands, with the SDLP losing all three of their seats (two to Sinn Féín and one to the DUP) and the UUP losing both of their seats (one to Sinn Féin and one to the DUP). Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down survived the election as the only non-SF/DUP MP, but her majority was slashed from over 9,000 in 2015 to just over 1,000.

As the table shows, currently six of the eighteen constituencies could be defined as toss-ups (with a majority less than 5%); one could be defined as leaning DUP (a majority of between 5-10%); and the other eleven constituencies could be defined as being solid seats (with a majority of more than 10%).

Whilst past voting records are a good way of predicting future voting preferences, having some level of polling also helps to give a snapshot of voting intention. There is very rarely constituency specific polling carried out in Northern Ireland but LucidTalk will be releasing constituency specific polling soon and it may very well give an indication as to how some of these key races are trending.

Interestingly eight constituencies which voted Remain in 2016 have a Remain MP (Foyle, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, North Down, South Down, West Tyrone, Newry & Armagh, Mid Ulster and West Belfast), 7 constituencies which voted Leave in 2016 have a Leave MP (South Antrim, Upper Bann, East Belfast, East Antrim, Strangford, Lagan Valley and North Antrim) and there are three constituencies which voted Remain in 2016 which have a Leave MP (South Belfast, North Belfast and East Derry). There are no constituencies which voted Leave in 2016 which have a Remain MP. There will obviously be pressure applied to the parties in South Belfast, North Belfast and possibly even North Down to select a unity candidate to ensure a Remain MP is elected and there will probably also be attempts, as always, in Fermanagh & South Tyrone to get a unionist unity candidate to take on Michelle Gildernew and ensure that a Leave MP is elected.

It is also next to impossible to extrapolate the local government results onto Westminster boundaries due to the fact that council elections are carried out using the new 2014 wards but Westminster and Assembly elections are still conducted on the basis of the pre-2014 ward structure which make it too difficult to give an accurate comparison. That said we do know that in some of the key constituencies definite trends emerged which will shape the narrative, especially as conversations turn inevitably towards pacts.

The SDLP will also be fighting to win back the seats they lost in 2017, and following a strong showing in Derry in the council election will be hoping to win back Mark Durkan’s old seat, although candidate selection remains unclear. The race for the seat in South Belfast will also be fascinating as it is the closest thing to a three (or even four) way marginal, with the DUP and Alliance having had a good council election across a number of DEAs in the south of the city, and the historic strength of the SDLP meaning that this race will be too close to call, but as in Foyle candidate selection will be crucial. Sinn Féin and the Greens won’t be in a position to win the seat, but their decision to stand, or not, will have a real say on who does. Sinn Féin had a poor election in Fermanagh & Omagh Council in 2019, and if this were to be replicated in a Westminster election then Michelle Gildernew’s seat could be under serious threat from a sole unionist candidate. In North Belfast both the DUP and Sinn Féin had good elections, with Sinn Féin picking up seats in Glengormley Urban and Macedon, meaning the race for the seat currently held by the DUP’s Nigel Dodds could be extremely close.

When we look at each of the ‘big 5’ parties we can see that all of them will have closes races, whether they are defending seats won, fighting to reclaim lost seats or aiming to pick up seats which eluded them last time.

DUP
2017 was a good election for the DUP, picking up seats in South Belfast and Antrim. They came close to unseating Lady Sylvia in North Down and this will be their top target this time out, and it will be interesting to see what deal, if any, will be done around a unionist unity candidate in Fermanagh & South Tyrone. With speculation that David Simpson may not run again in Upper Bann the DUP will be keen that any sign of an Ulster Unionist resurgence is snuffed out so the DUP may need to spend more effort in this constituency than they had originally planned.

Sinn Féín
Like the DUP, Sinn Féin had a good election in 2017, winning additional seats in Foyle, South Down and Fermanagh & South Tyrone. At this point their opportunities for pickups will be limited, and after middling electoral performances already in 2019, Sinn Féín will be hoping to defend the seats they picked up in Foyle and Fermanagh & South Tyrone, and maybe add a few more votes to their total.

UUP
After losing the two Westminster seats they won in 2015, the UUP will be hoping to win these seats back. However, on the back of poor elections in 2019, especially the European election, their chances of picking up seats looks limited. They only won Fermanagh & South Tyrone in 2015 after the DUP agreed to stand aside, but even this was not enough for them to retain the seat in 2017, so it remains to be seen if this move will work again.

SDLP
After losing all three of their Westminster seats in 2017 the SDLP will be pushing hard to win back South Belfast and Foyle. The party performed very well in the Derry side of the council election back in May and will be hopeful of winning back their most prized procession. The story in South Belfast will also be fascinating as it is shaping up to be the race to watch, as the SDLP, Sinn Féin and Alliance all seek to unseat Emma Little-Pengelly, but unless these parties come to some sort of arrangement they could all get in each others way and ensure the successful re-election of the DUP MP.

Alliance
2019 has been a hugely successful year, in electoral terms, for the Alliance Party. Big gains in the council election at the start of May were surpassed by Naomi Long’s performance in the European election at the end of May. However, due to the nature of the first past the post electoral system, 2019 may well end slightly disappointingly for Alliance. It seems certain that they will add votes to what they polled in 2017, but their opportunities to winning Westminster seats may well be limited to South and East Belfast. If the UK leaves the EU on 31st October Naomi Long will no longer be an MEP, although she may be an MLA again, but will she be a Westminster candidate in East Belfast? Their only other opportunity to pick up a seat may be South Belfast, but as mentioned above, the road to victory in that constituency is fraught with challenges.

Whether the general election happens sometime before the end of the year, early 2020, or even after that, there is a fair possibility that a number of seats could change hands and that the results will not only reshape Northern Irish politics but also its relationship with Westminster and the rest of Ireland.

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The Northern Ireland Office deserves Johnson’s serious attention

Over the weekend the Sun published an op-ed by Leo McKinstry which tidily set out the renewed security challenge facing the Government in Northern Ireland.

Two groups of so-called republican ‘dissidents’, the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and the New IRA (NIRA), are orchestrating an escalating string of attacks across the Province. The most recent was a bomb attack just last Monday.

Both groups have a long pedigree: the CIRA broke away in the mid-80s, and whilst the NIRA are, well, new they emerged by incorporating the infamous Real IRA (RIRA), the group behind the 1998 Omagh bombing which killed almost 30 people. But worsening conditions in Northern Ireland are apparently giving both organisations greater scope for action.

With both the backstop and the Government’s confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists putting a spotlight on Ulster, Boris Johnson will need to think very carefully about how he responds to this. However, he ought to rule one option out: making political concessions under duress from the threat of republican violence.

Stated baldly like that, this feels like it should be too obvious to need saying at all. But it is the unfortunate implication of the argument, too often heard, that this or that form of Brexit ‘threatens the peace process’. This form of words treats terrorist action as if it were a natural phenomenon, and thus shifts responsibility for it away from the perpetrators and towards the Government.

This sort of deceptive language is similar to that used to adduce the moral authority of the Belfast Agreement in support of various measures – not least an invisible border – not actually set out in it, which I wrote about last year.

A proper response to NIRA/CIRA activity then must include not only a robust security dimension, but a strong political effort to combat any attempt to use their atrocities and threats to force a change in policy. The Government must be equally committed to safeguarding both the people of Northern Ireland and the democratic processes of the United Kingdom from republican terrorists.

Unfortunately, Johnson has inherited a Province which has been neglected for years under Theresa May, who used the Northern Irish Office as a spare sinecure to keep uninspiring loyalists such as Karen Bradley in the Cabinet. Her administration made no progress towards restoring Stormont or towards putting in place a practical, credible plan for instituting direct rule. Her ministers even talked up the prospect of a border poll, yet doubtless the Prime Minister will find no plans laid on how to fight one.

All of which means that the new ‘Minister of the Union‘ must ensure that his Government gives Northern Ireland serious, strategic consideration. It needs to not only get on top of the security situation but onto the front foot in the Brexit ‘air war’, challenging the numerous nationalist narratives surrounding the Province and Brexit, as well as tackling both the immediate problem of governing the region and the longer-term challenge of re-establishing the Assembly and strengthening the Union.

With Johnson himself focusing on Brexit, all this means he needs a Northern Irish Secretary with deep experience of Ulster, a high profile in the relevant media, and real credibility and weight. Instead he has handed the role to Julian Smith, and dismissed long-term adviser Lord Caine to boot.

Does the Prime Minister have a plan? Or, like May before him, does he just not take the NIO seriously? If he truly cares about the Union, that has to change.

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The real winners of this abortive ’emergency government’ could be the SNP

At the time of writing, it looks as if efforts to put together a ‘letter-writing government’ – formed with the sole intention of extending Article 50 and then calling an election – are hitting the buffers.

For all the controversy around the handful of Conservative and ex-Conservative MPs who appear willing to discuss putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street for that purpose, there aren’t nearly enough of them to offset the ten ex-Labour MPs who won’t countenance installing their former leader.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Stephen Bush estimates that a Corbyn-led ’emergency government’ (the phrasing varies from advocate to advocate) would require 14 Tory rebels just to offset those hold-outs. He then reveals that they can’t even get Dominic Grieve.

As the Labour leadership are extremely unlikely to stand aside to allow a less divisive figure to do the job, the plan looks as if it might be dead in the water. Oddly, the biggest winners of this abortive effort might be the SNP.

Whilst they may no longer hold nearly every seat in Scotland, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that Nicola Sturgeon’s phalanx of Nationalist MPs would be absolutely crucial to any administration capable of outvoting the Conservative/Democratic Unionist alliance in the Commons. Unlike the hole she has dug for herself over independence, the First Minister seems to have used this leverage fairly well.

Unlike the other potential members of the rainbow coalition, the SNP have not ruled out making Jeremy Corbyn the next Prime Minister if that’s what it takes to halt Article 50. This has had several benefits.

First, they have been able to tempt both John McDonnell and, today, Jeremy Corbyn into undermining Labour’s agreed position on the Union and talking up the prospect of a second independence referendum. This has plunged an already-weakened Scottish Labour into civil war, and will likely see its vote squeezed even further as the SNP corral pro-independence voters and unionists consolidate behind Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives.

Second, this stance has allowed Sturgeon to put pressure on Jo Swinson. As the Scottish leader of a left-liberal, pro-EU party, SNP strategists might have worried that a Liberal Democrat revival might further chip away at their post-2014 coalition.

But Swinson’s room for manoeuvre is hindered by the fact that her Party’s main targets are mostly Tory-Lib Dem marginals where Corbyn is toxic. Putting a spotlight on Swinson’s swithering allows Sturgeon to paint the SNP as the best advocates for Scottish Europhiles, at very little cost to herself.

And of course, actually installing Corbyn in Number Ten would allow the Tories to re-run their successful campaign against the spectre of a ‘Lab-Nat Pact’ at the next election, not unhelpful if you think that a government led by Boris Johnson is a booster for independence.

The only possible danger seems to lie in the plan somehow working, and Corbyn entering the election legitimised as Prime Minister and as the hero who thwarted Johnson and his dastardly no-deal plans. But that prospect is probably not keeping the First Minister up at night.

It has now been two years since we first highlighted how the machinations of parliamentary remainers were bolstering those who want to break up the Union. It’s time this truth sank in.

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