A determined effort by the Irish Government to reduce the number of Covid 19 infections has unexpectedly strained relations with its EU colleague Italy. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the Italian Ambassador to Ireland was quick to criticise Irish quarantine plans in a move that has caused dismay in diplomatic circles.
Two weeks ago the Government in Dublin added Italy to a so-called ‘red list’ of 75 countries, including the USA, whereby any visitors visiting Ireland from these destinations would have to quarantine for 12 nights at a cost of €1,875 until given the corona virus all-clear to subsequently circulate amongst Irish people.
The policy was seen as a determined final push to decrease the number of infections in Ireland as the Government faces growing criticism over the slow roll-out of vaccinations.
What seemed liked commons sense by the Government in Dublin to prevent a fourth unpopular Irish lockdown was, to the bewilderment of the diplomatic corps in the City, met with surprising criticism when the Ambassador of Italy took to YouTube to record a highly critical attack on his political hosts.
Speaking to the Italian community in Ireland, Ambassador Paolo Serpi said on camera in his native language that the mandatory quarantine was “selective and discriminatory.
“We believe that these measures are excessive and do serious, severe harm to our co-nationals and in particular to our communities here in Ireland, and we cannot accept this.”
His words were met with shock and dismay within Irish political circles where comments and concerns of this nature are usually raised behind closed doors in polite diplomatic speak and not broadcast to the wider world!
Ambassador Serpi appeared to imply that the Irish Government was under the impression that the authorities in Italy were not taking the emergence of Covid variants with any sense of seriousness. He insisted that the reality is different.
In his YouTube address, Ambassador Serpi added, “I also noted that our country Italy is undertaking a serious vaccination campaign and that in reality in Italy there exists at this moment, the same variants that are hitting Ireland, there are not others.
“So measures that are in a way selective and discriminatory in Ireland towards communities, countries that are in the European Union, are measures that should be done with the utmost caution,” the ambassador added.
Questioned on RTE Radio about his comments, he said he believed that countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, France and Italy were being "targeted" by the Irish Government for "being serious in the detection of variants".
Surprised Irish Government officials were quick to play down the comments by Ambassador Serpi.
They insisted that they had engaged at all times with the European Commission about their Covid quarantine plans.
“We kept the EU informed about our plans at every stage and the various EU member State embassies were also advised and briefed in advance about our plans,” a Government official in Dublin told the Irish Independent newspaper.
The Italian-Irish Chamber of Commerce also rowed in on the issue saying that that the decision by the Irish Government had not been properly thought out from a business point of view.
Its Secretary General Alberto Rizzini told the Irish Times, “The real issue here is the impact on the trade relationship between Italy and Ireland in the coming months. Such impact is not only for Italian companies or Italian businesses but for any corporation in Ireland working with Italy or having a large population of Italian employees.
“While larger corporations will be able to deal with this, smaller enterprises will struggle to survive,” he said.
In response to the diplomatic furore, Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, who has been under pressure over the slow roll-out of vaccines, went on RTE Television to defend his position.
He said he would “make no apologies” to the European Commission or Italian ambassador to Ireland for introducing mandatory hotel quarantine stating he was “confident” the move complies with existing EU laws relating to the free movement of people and the ongoing battle to tackle the global spread of the virus.
NI Unionism in trouble
With three high profile unionist leaders quitting their roles in the space of two weeks, protestants in Northern Ireland are facing in to a critical period of political uncertainty. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, a merger between the two main parties that are struggling to guarantee long-term British rule in the Province may be the best option for the future and even at that, there’s no guarantee it will work!
Two weeks ago in a somewhat surprising bolt out of the blue, members of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party staged something of a rebellion when they signed a treacherous letter calling on their leader Arlene Foster (pictured) to step down.
The unexpected move sent shockwaves through the political system on the island of Ireland.
Mrs. Foster, 50, was having a bad enough week as it was having found herself in a Belfast court locked in a defamation case against Channel 4 TV celebrity Doctor Christian Jessen who implied in a tweet that the married unionist Leader had been having an extra-marital affair with a member of her security team.
If that wasn’t stressful enough to contend with in any week, Mrs. Foster was then shafted by her colleagues.
The rebels ruthlessly decided to blame her after their Party had been shafted by Boris Johnson for the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the new controversial Brexit arrangement whereby certain goods entering NI from GB have to be checked at ports in Belfast and Larne.
As the hardliners saw it, her failure to prevent this development sees Northern Ireland notionally edge closer towards unification with the Republic of Ireland and further away from the grasp of London.
DUP Party colleague and unionist hardliner Sammy Wilson MP implied that her successor faces just as tough a time in the job as Brexit and other issues show no sign of going away.
He told BBC N: "Maybe a new leader will not be able to escape from some of the unfair criticism which has been attached to Arlene on this.”
To add to the DUP’s difficulties, the Party’s deputy Leader Lord Nigel Dodds, who quickly saw the sharks heading in his direction, also quit his role last week.
To make matters worse for Northern Ireland unionism, the Leader of the once un-beatable and rival Ulster Unionist Party Steve Aiken, a former commander in the British Navy, resigned as party leader on Saturday last just as the SNP was about to secure 64 seats at Hollyrood in Edinburgh and increase its call for an end to the union with Britain!
In a resigning statement, Steve Aiken said he “had taken the Party as far as he could.”
With the UUP failing to elect any MPs to Westminster in 2019 surpassed by the smaller Alliance Party which secured one and only holding 10 seats in the NI Assembly compared to 28 for the DUP, it seems Mr. Aiken hadn’t taken the Party very far at all!
Unionism on both sides of the Irish Sea is clearly in trouble!
On Friday next May 14th, the DUP will elect a new leader.
Edwin Poots, the ultra-religious, homophobic and climate change right-winger is currently the favourite and he has indicated that if elected, he will stall co-operation with Dublin on North-South bodies while simultaneously seeking a legal review of the NI Protocol.
All that before he puts road blocks in the way to prevent the introduction of the agreed Irish Language Act, moves which could increase sectarian tension.
If his rival Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who opposed the 1998 British-Irish Peace Agreement succeeds, continuity with Foster is expected albeit with greater emphasis on bringing greater unity within the divided DUP and increasing pressure on London to end the NI Protocol.
“I will go on a listening tour to re-connect with communities and members on the ground”, he said last week suggesting the Party needs to do more to connect to its grassroots members in the heartland.
In the meantime, the beleaguered UUP will continue the search to appoint its 6th leader in 16 years!
Doug Beattie is expected to take control but it’s a job no other apparent candidates are putting their hands up and shouting “Please pick me.”! Did I say unionism is in trouble?
Whoever succeeds, the would-be leader faces unstoppable forces that the DUP have little or no control over.
Rapidly changing demographics indicate that the pro-Irish unification party Sinn Féin will win the most seats in next year’s 2022 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland putting them in the political driving seat for the first time since 1921!
Added to this, the Northern Ireland Census to be published next year is 99.9 per cent likely to see the number of catholics surpass the number of pro-British protestants in the province for the first time since the 17th century, ensuring a louder call from Irish nationalists for an historic unification referendum.
With internal warfare going on within the DUP and the UUP not knowing if it’s coming or going, the questions begs as to where these two parties are headed for as Sinn Féin slowly starts to emerge over the hill with its victory flag partly aloft ready for the far-off ultimate prize of a united Ireland.
The much respected political commentator Alex Kane, a former communications officer with the Ulster Unionist Party, believes the time has come for the two rival unionist parties to put their ideological differences aside and amalgamate.
Speaking to BBC NI TV on Sunday Politics, he said, “if they [the UUP] don’t get it right this time, if they do not make progress whether the [Assembly] election is in September or some time next Spring, if they do not win seats, increase their votes make a dent on the Alliance [Party], it’s a waste of time and I do know that certain people in the Ulster Unionist Party who quite like the idea of a gentle merge in to the Democratic Unionist Party.
“…….this is an existential moment for the Union, an existential moment for unionism and I think that if it is Doug Beattie and I suspect it will be Doug Beattie [who succeeds Steve Aiken], that is going to be his biggest challenge.”
Unionism is definitely in trouble and all that before Boris Johnson deals with the fallout from the Scottish Assembly elections.
Ireland confident of solution for post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade
Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (pictured) said he firmly believes Britain and the European Union can solve outstanding issues around post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland, particularly if a middle ground can be found on animal and animal product checks, writes Padraic Halpin.
Trade barriers introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom have caused deep anger among many pro-British unionists in the region and were partly responsible for over a week of nightly street violence this month.
British and EU negotiators have said they will step up talks in the coming weeks to solve what Simon Coveney described on Tuesday as "practical frustrations" in how the Northern Ireland protocol is being implemented. Read more
"I firmly believe that acting together within the framework of the protocol, the EU and UK can find solutions to the outstanding issues," Coveney told a parliamentary committee.
"Finding a sustainable and collaborative way forward will also foster stability that given recent very concerning disturbances in Northern Ireland is needed now more than ever."
Northern Ireland has remained in the EU single market for goods since Britain left the bloc's orbit on 31 December 2020 to ensure an open border with EU member Ireland and so requires checks on goods coming from other parts of the United Kingdom.
Coveney said 20 of the 26 different issues isolated by negotiators could be solved through technical discussions but that the others are more contentious and may require a change of approach from the politicians.
Those include the supply of medicines into Northern Ireland, steel tariffs, labelling of goods and most crucially sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on animal and animal product checks, he said.
Britain previously swiftly rejected signing up to "dynamic alignment" with EU standards that would have removed most of those checks while the EU knocked back a UK proposal for a more hands off approach.
Coveney said finding a middle ground on this issue offered a real opportunity to "quite significantly" change the implementation of the protocol.
"It is a no brainer as far as I'm concerned but unfortunately many of the issues linked to Brexit are approached not from the basis of pragmatism but in terms of Britain needing to do its own thing," he said, referring to the SPS issue.
Is a united Ireland just around the corner?
Northern Ireland has remained under British rule since 1921 when London divided Ireland thus creating two jurisdictions on the island. However, as our correspondent Ken Murray reports from Dublin, a number of recent opinion polls suggest that changing attitudes and demographics coupled with forthcoming milestone events are likely to speed up calls on 10 Downing Street to give the go-ahead for an Irish unification Referendum within the next five years.
In Northern Ireland, pop: 1.8 million, you are likely to be on one side of the political divide or the other. If you’re a working class Irish catholic you totally oppose British rule in favour of a united Ireland.
On the other hand, if you are a pro-British unionist from the protestant community, loyalty to the Monarchy in London has been built in to your DNA going back to the English Reformation in the 16th century and the plantation of Ulster.
But despite 25 years of civil war from 1969 to 1994 costing more than 3,500 lives in a push by Irish republicans to end British rule in the province peppered with numerous stops and starts in the evolving peace process, significant change is afoot in Northern Ireland which suggest that its days in the UK are numbered.
An opinion Poll carried out by LucidTalk for the BBC NI Spotlight TV programme revealed last week that a majority of people on both sides of the Irish border are of the view that Northern Ireland will be out of the United Kingdom by 2046.
The survey of 2,845 participants in N.I. and 1,008 in the Republic revealed that 49 per cent of people questioned said that if there was a border today, they would vote to remain in the United Kingdom.
43 per cent of those questioned in Northern Ireland said they would vote for unification while eight per cent didn’t have an opinion.
South of the border in the Irish Republic, 51% said they would vote for a united Ireland if a referendum took place today with 27% voting against.
However 51% of those polled in Northern Ireland said they didn’t expect N.I. to be in the UK in 25 years time.
Simultaneously, a Red C Poll carried out for European Movement Ireland revealed amongst other things, that 43 per cent of people in the Republic don’t expect unification by 2031.
With 66 per cent in NI saying they definitely wanted a Border Poll within the next five years and 37 per cent opposing, the Survey was dismissed by British PM Boris Johnson.
He told the Spotlight programme that he couldn’t see an All-Ireland Referendum for “a very, very long time.”
Keen to play down the results of the Poll, Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin (pictured) appeared to adopt a wait and see approach saying he didn’t see a referendum happening for some time stating that such an exercise would be “explosive and divisive.”
The figures from the polls ignore the fact that three major milestones are coming down the line that are likely to speed up calls for such a unification vote.
If the Scottish National Party secure the majority of seats in the forthcoming Assembly election on May 6th, increased pressure will come on Boris Johnson to grant an independence Referendum.
Should that happen within the next two years and the SNP win, the United Kingdom as a political block will be finished thus speeding up calls for a similar Poll in Ireland.
Assembly elections in Northern Ireland in May 2022 are highly likely to see the pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin win the majority of seats putting them in the dominant position for the first time since the province was cut off from the Republic in 1921.
In the meantime, the Northern Ireland census will be published next year and is expected to see the catholic numbers in Northern Ireland surpass protestants for the first time in over 300 years, a further but highly significant development that will speed up calls for a unity referendum.
Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill told RTE TV in Dublin last weekend that “now is the time to talk and plan for something better in relation to a united Ireland.”
She said: “Partition had failed Northern Ireland, adding that it was the slowest growing economy across the islands.”
Reacting to the LucidTalk Poll, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and leader of the staunch pro-British DUP party Arlene Foster dismissed the figures telling BBC NI "this whole thing that a united Ireland is just around the corner, I have heard that all my adult life”.
"This is a feature of narrow nationalism, that they use this sort of inevitability argument that we are going to move towards a united Ireland.
"Over this past while we have spent so much time and I have listened to so much debate over a united Ireland but yet there is no balanced debate of where we are in a global United Kingdom moving forward."
In the meantime, all eyes are on the outcome of the Scottish Assembly elections next week which, ironically, could be the catalyst for change in Ireland.
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