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Ireland: Martin leadership under pressure

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The Irish government, like the UK, has this week begun the slow and delicate task of relaxing COVID-19 restrictions while simultaneously increasing the roll-out of vaccines. For the ruling three-party government, the move is something of a political risk. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, failure to reduce the infection rate adequately and the declining popularity of Fianna Fáil, the party headed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin (pictured), could see a change in leadership unless opinion poll graphs start going up instead of down.

On Friday 9 April, the Cabinet of the Irish government held a late night incorporeal meeting, a process whereby a senior civil servant rings Ministers, has a one-to one chat and determines their respective position and vote on a policy matter.

At issue was a decision to add countries like France, Italy, Belgium, Canada and, interestingly, the USA to its expanding list of countries where respective visitors to Ireland must go in to strict quarantine for two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.

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For many, this severe measure is seen as a last throw of the dice to not only reduce the spread of the virus but to get normal politics back on the political agenda as weary Irish people, metaphorically speaking, ‘tear their hair out’ amidst one of the most severe lockdown programmes in the democratic world.

For Micheál Martin, the coming months could determine if he is to be replaced as leader of his party and accordingly, as Taoiseach.

As one of his parliamentary TDs told The Irish Times last weekend, the jostling for positions is “relentless”, a sign perhaps that his critics within the governing Fianna Fáil Party, a centre ground pro united Ireland party, are lining up to take him out!

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Put bluntly, Irish voters are turning their backs on the once unbeatable Fianna Fáil. The Party secured 22.2 per cent of the first preference votes in the General Election of February 2020 but since the Covid pandemic took effect, its popularity has fallen to 11 per cent!

Its decision to enter a three-way coalition Government in June of last year with its erstwhile enemy Fine Gael headed by former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Green Party has not delivered positive results for Micheál Martin.

With COVID being the one item that has dominated the political agenda since March 2020 and Irish people going through a painful third lockdown at Level 5, the highest of all, the government is coming under increasing attack for being seen, amongst other things, to be trailing the UK in the rollout of vaccines.

As one ageing Fianna Fáil TD (member of Parliament) who didn’t wish to be named told this reporter: “Matters are not being helped by the fact that there is a housing crisis with more and more young people struggling to get on the property ladder and the slow nature in tackling the problem is seeing a drift in our young support to left-wing parties.”

The big beneficiary in this drift is fellow republican party but much maligned Sinn Féin. It secured 24.5 per cent of the first preference vote in 2020 and managed to win 37 seats, just one behind Fianna Fáil in Ireland’s Proportional Representation system of elections.

The TD added, “Fianna Fáil under Micheál Martin has gone soft on the north [Northern Ireland] while Sinn Fein are constantly calling for a unification referendum. This is what republicans want to hear even if it’s a long way off and we are relatively quiet on the matter.

“COVID has been a disaster for us because 99% of all political activity since last year has been on tackling the spread of the virus and the tragic knock-on effect for businesses and the Irish economy.

“We’ve been struggling to get our message out on the other policy issues we are addressing. The quicker Covid goes away, the better,” he said.

Because of the way the votes fell out of the boxes after last year’s election, Fianna Fáil entered in to government with Fine Gael and the Green Party to keep Sinn Féin out!

The deal created a rotating Taoiseach arrangement whereby Micheál Martin will serve as PM until December 2022 when Leo Varadkar will then succeed him in the run in to the next election.

All this is predicated on Micheál Martin lasting that long. His survival is likely to be based on how the graphs perform in opinion polls in the coming months.

Ireland

Simon Coveney: Irish foreign minister to face confidence vote

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Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (pictured) is to face a confidence vote later when the Dáil (Irish parliament) returns from its summer recess, writes the BBC.

Coveney has been criticized for his handling of the appointment of former government minister Katherine Zappone as a UN special envoy.

He has denied that he was lobbied to appoint her but apologised for not informing cabinet before a meeting in July.

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She has since turned down the post.

Sinn Féin has tabled a motion of no confidence in Mr Coveney, but the government is to put down a counter, confidence motion which will be debated by TDs (members of parliament) and voted on later.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, of Fianna Fáil, described it as an "oversight" that Coveney had not informed his government colleagues about the appointment ahead of the cabinet meeting, a move which has been reported to have caused divisions.

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Coveney's party, Fine Gael, is part of a coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

Katherine Zappone
Katherine Zappone was a ministerial colleague of Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar

It later emerged that Coveney's party leader Leo Varadkar had not been aware of the appointment of a "Special Envoy to the UN for Freedom of Opinion and Expression" until a week before cabinet, when Zappone texted him about it.

In messages released by Varadkar in September, he showed that he subsequently asked Coveney about the role before the cabinet meeting in July.

Zappone replied that her contract was soon to be finalised.

On 4 August, Zappone announced she would not take on the special envoy position as she believed "it is clear that criticism of the appointment process has impacted the legitimacy of the role itself".

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald has called for Coveney to be sacked and raised the prospect of a vote of no confidence.

She branded his actions as not being "of the standard expected of a minister".

The Labour Party has indicated that it does not have confidence in the government, but leader Alan Kelly said there were "bigger issues" than the row.

On Tuesday (14 September), Coveney told a party conference that he was "embarrassed" that the appointment had led to a "fiasco".

"It's not been my finest month in politics," he said.

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Brexit

Commission approves €10 million Irish support measure for fishery sector in the context of Brexit

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, a €10 million Irish scheme to support the fishery sector affected by the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, and the consequent quota share reductions foreseen in the provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the EU and the UK. The support will be available to companies that commit to temporarily cease their fishing activities for a month.

The aim of the scheme is to save part of the Irish reduced fishing quota for other vessels, while the beneficiaries temporarily suspend their activities. The compensation will be granted as a non-refundable grant, calculated on the basis of gross earnings averaged for the fleet size, excluding the cost of fuel and food for the crew of the vessel. Each eligible company will be entitled to the support for up to a month in the period between 1 September to 31 December 2021. The Commission assessed the measures under Article 107(3)(c) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which allows Member States to support the development of certain economic activities or regions, under certain conditions.The Commission found that the measure enhances the sustainability of the fishery sector and its ability to adapt to new fishing and market opportunities arising from the new relationship with the UK.

Therefore, the measure facilitates the development of this sector and contributes to the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy to ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable in the long term. The Commission concluded that the measure constitutes an appropriate form of support in order to facilitate an orderly transition in the EU fishery sector following the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. On this basis, the Commission approved the scheme under EU State aid rules.

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Today's (3 September) decision does not prejudge whether the support measure will eventually be eligible for Brexit Adjustment Reserve ‘BAR' funding, which will be assessed once the BAR Regulation has entered into force. However, it already provides Ireland with legal certainty that the Commission considers the support measure to be compliant with EU State aid rules, irrespective of the ultimate source of funding. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64035 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Unmasked: 23 detained over COVID-19 business email compromise fraud

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A sophisticated fraud scheme using compromised emails and advance-payment fraud has been uncovered by authorities in Romania, the Netherlands and Ireland as part of an action co-ordinated by Europol. 

On 10 August, 23 suspects were detained in a series of raids carried out simultaneously in the Netherlands, Romania and Ireland. In total, 34 places were searched. These criminals are believed to have defrauded companies in at least 20 countries of approximately €1 million. 

The fraud was run by an organised crime group which prior to the COVID-19 pandemic already illegally offered other fictitious products for sale online, such as wooden pellets. Last year the criminals changed their modus operandi and started offering protective materials after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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This criminal group – composed of nationals from different African countries residing in Europe, created fake email addresses and webpages similar to the ones belonging to legitimate wholesale companies. Impersonating these companies, these criminals would then trick the victims – mainly European and Asian companies, into placing orders with them, requesting the payments in advance in order for the goods to be sent. 

However, the delivery of the goods never took place, and the proceeds were laundered through Romanian bank accounts controlled by the criminals before being withdrawn at ATMs. 

Europol has been supporting this case since its onset in 2017 by: 

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  • Bringing together the national investigators on all sides who have seen been working closely together with Europol’s European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) to prepare for the action day;
  • providing continuous intelligence development and analysis to support the field investigators, and;
  • deploying two of its cybercrime experts to the raids in the Netherlands to support the Dutch authorities with cross-checking in real-time information gathered during the operation and with securing relevant evidence. 

Eurojust co-ordinated the judicial co-operation in view of the searches and provided support with the execution of several judicial cooperation instruments.

This action was carried out in the framework of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT).

The following law enforcement authorities were involved in this action:

  • Romania: National Police (Poliția Română)
  • The Netherlands: National Police (Politie)
  • Ireland: National Police (An Garda Síochána)
  • Europol: European Cybercrime Centre (EC3)
     
EMPACT

In 2010 the European Union set up a four-year policy cycle to ensure greater continuity in the fight against serious international and organised crime. In 2017 the Council of the EU decided to continue the EU Policy Cycle for the 2018 - 2021 period. It aims to tackle the most significant threats posed by organised and serious international crime to the EU. This is achieved by improving and strengthening cooperation between the relevant services of EU member states, institutions and agencies, as well as non-EU countries and organizations, including the private sector where relevant. Cybercrime is one of the priorities for the Policy Cycle.

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