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NI Unionism in trouble

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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.

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New G7 tax regime is worrying news for Ireland

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Last weekend’s news that the G7 group of wealthy nations plan to extract more tax from high-profile tech corporations may be good news for those who feel these super rich companies are not paying their fair share. However, this new plan may be bad news for Ireland, the most successful country in Europe when it comes to attracting Foreign Direct Investment as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.

When finance ministers from the seven richest nations on earth gathered at Lancaster House in London last weekend to discuss their respective and global fiscal issues following on from the COVID-19 pandemic, one particular person from Ireland sat in the room as an apprehensive observer.

Irish Finance Minister Pascal Donohoe (pictured) was there in his role as chairman of the European Commission euro group. It’s the all-important Committee that represents the 19 EU states that use the euro currency on a daily basis.

After much too-ing and fro-ing, the G7 and EU concluded their meeting with a communiqué stating that corporate or business tax will be raised to a minimum rate of 15% with an emphasis that the money will be paid in the country where the production operation is based rather than the location of the corporation HQ.

To the average Joe and Mary Bloggs living in downtown Berlin, Rome, London or Paris, 15% is no big deal but in Ireland where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%, the 2.5% gap could be the difference in attracting or losing jobs as foreign corporations look for the cheapest and most attractive options to set up European hubs to maximize their respective profits and increase their stock market value.

At a time when Ireland’s competitiveness is suffering the most over Brexit as it now costs more to move product through the UK to get to mainland Europe and vice-versa, the last thing the Irish government needs is would-be US investors by-passing the country because it has lost its hitherto attractive incentive.

“I am very confident that while there is change coming...this is change we can respond to,” said Minister Donoghue afterwards with his Irish Finance ‘hat’ on, suggesting that the Dublin Government will do all in its power to hold on to the foreign corporations in Ireland who play a huge part in propping up the Country’s GDP figures.

According to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the increase in corporation tax for foreign investors could cost the exchequer in Ireland a hefty €3.5 billion per year, an unwelcome prediction at a time when the Country has just added €50 billion to its national debt due to Covid.

This is a not a lot of money in each of the G7 nations but in the Republic of Ireland where the population is just under five million, €3.5 billion pays a lot of bills!

As it is, attracting FDI or foreign direct investors in to Ireland has been a hugely successful policy by the Irish Industrial Development Authority since the 1980s.

When the Irish economy was stagnant then, FDI was difficult due to the ongoing war in Northern Ireland while the mass emigration of highly skilled college graduates to foreign states proved to be politically unpopular.

As a result, a major plan to attract leading US corporations in to Ireland became a number one priority with the Irish state, metaphorically speaking, ‘bending over backwards’ to lure these companies in with a wide array of incentives and supports.

The introduction of a corporate tax rate of 12.5%, the evolving fact that Ireland is now the largest English-speaking country in the EU and with a steady supply of highly skilled tech graduates from its growing number of industry-driven colleges, the Country has become something of a magnet for major US tech giants.

With a special income tax rate in place for CEOs as the ultimate sweetener, ten of the major tech companies in the World have now chosen Ireland as their European base.

These include Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pay Pal, Linkedin, Intel, eBay and Tik Tok. Add on Pfizer, Wyeth and Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals to name some of many, the 1600 or so foreign companies operating in Ireland who employ a minimum of 250,000 people, have contributed enormously to the Irish exchequer and not surprisingly, the Government in Dublin is keen to retain them and continue the determined push to attract more.

Despite the fear that the expected ‘level playing pitch’ could see Ireland less attractive than other EU states for attracting new business, Pascal Donoghue indicated at the weekend that the G7 statement is not the end of the matter.

Speaking to reporters, he emphasised than an OECD meeting later this year is likely to determine where non-G7 countries stand in relation to corporation tax on foreign investors.

“Today is a very clear signal regarding the larger economies’ view of that process but we have some time to go on the OECD process and even when that concludes, the actual agreement has to be implemented.

“The implementation of the last agreement on corporate tax took many years. [That] will be the case with this again both from a legislation and implementation point of view.”

In the meantime, as the Irish Government worries that Ireland may not be as financially attractive for FDI investors in the future if these revised tax rates take hold, Minister Donoghue indicated that he will present his case to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the OECD Secretariat to make the point that small countries need to be allowed to remain competitive otherwise their respective economies will struggle.

“[I have] continued to make the case for legitimate tax competition inside certain boundaries,” he said, suggesting that the Irish Government will continue to fight a determined rear guard action to retain its attractive 12.5% tax rate.

The matter is likely to dominate the next meeting of G20 countries when they meet in Rome next October.

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DUP at war

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Unionism in Northern Ireland is in turmoil with elected members of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party in open warfare over the election of its new leader Edwin Poots. With the name of the expected new First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly due to be announced in the coming days, subsequent events could see the collapse of the regional parliament and with it, the expected ascent of the pro-Irish unity Party Sinn Féin to become the largest political party in the province, as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.

On 22 June, prominent pro-British unionists will gather at Belfast City Hall for an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the first opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament by King George V.

The institution, was once described by former NI Prime Minister James Craig as being “a protestant parliament for a protestant people” while the sovereign parliament in Dublin served the wishes of the mainly catholic community in the South following the British division of Ireland in 1921.

For 100 years, unionists from the protestant community have viewed Northern Ireland as being as ‘British as Finchley’, the one-time constituency of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

However, turmoil within unionist ranks has meant that what should be a day of glorious celebration on June 22nd to mark the creation of Northern Ireland, is shaping up to be anything but.

The pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, which currently has the largest number of seats in the Assembly, is in open warfare.

A recent rebellion by hard-line elected DUP members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to overthrow leader Arlene Foster saw ultra-conservative Edwin Poots win over Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP by just two votes, with just under half of the parliamentary Party feeling the heave was foolish and unnecessary.

A senior DUP source told The Belfast News Letter paper “that individuals across the Party were considering resignation with some likely to go to the [rival] Ulster Unionist Party.”

At a ratification conference of Party members in a Belfast Hotel last week, a number of senior members in the Party including Lord Nigel Dodds, his wife Diane and MPs, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Gavin Robinson and Gregory Campbell, walked out just as Poots took to the microphone to deliver his victory speech, itself a reflection of the bitterness in the Party.

Arlene Foster, who many observers say has been treated in appalling fashion, is being clearly scapegoated by one-time party friends and colleagues.

As they see it, she failed to prevent the introduction of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by London with Brussels as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The Protocol sees goods exported from GB to NI checked at ports in Belfast and Larne thus creating a notional border in the Irish Sea which, as unionists see it, now aligns Northern Ireland closer to Dublin and further away from London.

The unfortunate Mrs. Foster is the victim of a deal which Boris Johnson told DUP members would never happen but was subsequently reneged on by him!

Following the heave against Mrs. Foster, she had planned to step down as NI First Minister in dignified fashion at the end of June but the ruthless nature of her removal suggests she will be gone in the coming days.

Speaking to Chris Mason on the BBC Newscast podcast about her humiliating defenestration she said, “……..politics is brutal but even by the DUP standards, it was pretty brutal.

"If Edwin decides that he wants to change that team, I will have to go as well because I can't stay with a new ministerial team of which I have no authority, and that would be wrong."

Poots, who in 2012 as health minister imposed a controversial ban on gay men donating blood and is on record as saying that the earth is only 6,000 years old and has, bizarrely, ruled out appointing himself as First Minister!

Favourite to take the role is Poots loyalist 39-year old Paul Givan. However, if Givan is nominated as First Minister for Northern Ireland, a series of knock-on events could see Edwin Poots reign be a short-lived one!

Under the rules, the appointment of a new Northern Ireland First Minister would also have to see the election of a deputy First Minister from the opposing Irish nationalist side. In this case, that would see the existing holder of the Office, Michelle O’Neill, nominated again by the pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin.

As it is, there is increasing frustration and growing anger within Sinn Fein over the ongoing delays and failure of Poots’ DUP to approve the introduction of the contentious Irish Language Act.

Granting such a move, as many unionists see it, would result in Northern Ireland becoming more ‘Irish’ and less British with the language being taught in protestant schools and ultimately becoming more visible on road signage and State institution logo designs!

Should Sinn Féin insist as part of a deal to support Givan for the First Minister position that a deadline date must be imposed to introduce the Act in to the Assembly and the DUP refuse, the NI regional parliament is likely to collapse followed by an expected game-changing election!

In 2016, Paul Givan, then a Communities Minister, laid down a marker as to where he stands on the language when he cut funding for a project that would have seen school children attend an Irish-speaking district in the Republic of Ireland, a sectarian decision that contributed to the collapse of the Assembly in 2017.

This emerging scenario leaves the DUP in something of a political snooker! The Party, which has shown no enthusiasm for the Irish Language Act, currently has 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly with Sinn Féin on 27.

It is an almost certainty that Sinn Féin will emerge as the largest Party for the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 following the next Assembly election due to changing demographics.

Any loss of power or reduction in DUP seats would then see a move from the Jeffrey Donaldson wing of the Party to remove Poots thus increasing division within its ranks even more so!

Unionism in Northern Ireland is in deep trouble, a scenario which, 100 years on from creating the “the protestant parliament for the protestant people” currently gives it little to celebrate!

According to Arlene Foster in an interview with The Financial Times, "I think we are regressing and becoming more narrow,” she said.

“It’s quite nasty, frankly. If the union is to succeed, we need to be a bigger tent . . . The plea I would make to the party is that, if they want to secure the union, then they have to have a wide vision for the union.”

In the meantime, SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon is expected to up the pressure in the coming months for an independence referendum in Scotland, the outcome of which could put Northern Ireland’s position within the UK in to even further peril.

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Recovery and Resilience Facility: Ireland and Sweden submit official recovery and resilience plans

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The Commission has received an official recovery and resilience plan from Ireland and Sweden. These plans set out the reforms and public investment projects that each member state plans to implement with the support of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). The RRF is the key instrument at the heart of NextGenerationEU, the EU's plan for emerging stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic. It will provide up to €672.5 billion to support investments and reforms (in 2018 prices). This breaks down into grants worth a total of €312.5bn and €360bn in loans.

The RRF will play a crucial role in helping Europe emerge stronger from the crisis, and securing the green and digital transitions. The presentation of these plans follows intensive dialogue between the Commission and the national authorities of these member states over the past number of months. The Commission will assess the plans within the next two months based on the eleven criteria set out in the Regulation and translate their contents into legally binding acts. The Commission has now received 21 recovery and resilience plans from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Hungary, Austria, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland, and Sweden. It will continue to engage intensively with the remaining Member States to help them deliver high quality plans.

A press release and a Q&A are available online.

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