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Worrying times for Northern Ireland unionists

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The British government is under pressure from the EU to implement a key component of the Northern Ireland Protocol in full by the start of July. For unionists in Northern Ireland, the coming weeks could see a return to violence in the Province or an Assembly election that could mark the beginning of the end of traditional regional politics as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.

It’s been a turbulent few months in Northern Ireland. The First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster (pictured) was shafted last month in a humiliating coup by right-wing colleagues who felt she wasn’t tough enough with PM Boris Johnson whose administration agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU last December.

Foster was succeeded as Party Leader by the God-loving right winger Edwin Poots.

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A gracious but clearly hurt Arlene Foster entertained amused journalists at a meeting of the British-Irish Council in County Fermanagh last week when she summed up her bruising experience by breaking in to a Frank Sinatra song and singing “That’s life. That’s what all the people say. You’re riding high in April, shot down in May…”

The Protocol, which is part of the British Exit Withdrawal Agreement from the EU, has resulted in long port checks on goods and pets entering Northern Ireland from GB.

As pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland see it, the trading Protocol creates an imaginary border in the Irish Sea and psychologically moves the province a step closer towards an economic united Ireland and isolates it even further from Great Britain!

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Angry British unionists from working class areas of Northern Ireland, commonly known as loyalists, have been out on the streets protesting every other night objecting to the Protocol as they feel London is selling them out for an eventual united Ireland, a prospect they totally object to.

With Arlene Foster formally stepping down this week, the regional Parliament at Stormont in Belfast, will seek to appoint a new First Minister.

The dominant DUP will nominate Paul Givan but under the rules in Northern Ireland, the pro-Irish Sinn Féin will have seven days to nominate a Deputy First Minister, who, in this case, will be the incumbent Michelle O’Neill.

Givan can’t have the job unless Michelle O’Neill gets the backing of her side. This is where things could get difficult for all sides.

In late 2006, the then DUP Leader the Reverend Ian Paisley agreed with Sinn Féin, amongst other things as part of the price for entering power in 2007, to introduce an Irish Language Act.

15 years on, the DUP has put every metaphorical road block in place to stop the Act from being introduced so as to ensure Northern Ireland isn’t overcome with gaelic words.

As the DUP see it, the introduction of such an Act would make Northern Ireland a little more Irish, a little less British and would be seen by unionists as yet another incremental step towards a united Ireland.

At issue this week will be Sinn Féin seeking a guaranteed time-line from the DUP for the introduction of the Act otherwise it is unlikely to endorse Paul Givan for the top job.

Unionists may insist on a Cultural Act which would give legal promotion to the obscure Ulster-Scots language which has no profile at all!

A DUP source told the Irish Sunday Times at the weekend that “Either Sinn Féin softens its position [on the Act], which I doubt will happen, or else there will be no nomination for First Minister.”

Should the DUP reject the call to introduce the Irish Language Act only, the Northern Ireland Parliament or Assembly will be suspended for the sixth time since 2000 with an election being the likely outcome.

If an election take place, it is highly likely that Sinn Féin will emerge with the highest number of seats for the first time since the British partitioned Ireland in 1921 but subsequent negotiations on forming a successive new parliament would likely be bogged down on resolving the very issue that forced it to collapse in the first place!

In 2017, the pro-British DUP won 28 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly election while the pro-Irish Sinn Féin won 27.

A LucidTalk opinion Poll published in the The Belfast Telegraph last month revealed that Sinn Féin had 25% of the popular support while the DUP had slipped to 16%, a startling revelation that suggests the dominant days of unionism in Northern Ireland are all but over!

Elsewhere, next month will see Northern Ireland reach the peak of the 2021 Marching Season when Orange Order flute bands parade down the streets of the Province’s cities, towns and villages to celebrate the symbolic victory of the protestant King William over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

If street marches in recent months are anything to go by, these Orange Order parades could be exploited to the point of violence in order to send a hostile message to London that loyalists and unionists will not accept the Northern Ireland Protocol which, they say, isolates them from GB and threatens their British identity.

In the meantime, the so-called ‘grace period’ on the importation of some chilled meats in to Northern Ireland from GB, comes to an end on June 30th, a development that could have serious implications for food supplies and business operations!

The ending of this grace period has seen the EU indicate it will not row back on the movement of chilled meats from GB to NI with the only possible compromise being one where the British Government agrees to climb down and re-align its food production standards to the same level as the European Union as was the case pre-Brexit.

Speaking to Sky News, PM Boris Johnson said: “If the protocol continues to be applied in this way, then we will obviously not hesitate to invoke article 16, as I have said before”, a move which could see the British Government unilaterally suspend its operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and would likely be met by a reciprocal measure from Brussels!"

Such a move, would provoke outrage in Brussels, Dublin and Washington where latterly, Joe Biden’s support for Ireland is well documented.

With the DUP under pressure to introduce the Irish Language Act or face electoral consequences, loyalists threatening violence and Boris Johnson being told that certain chilled meats can not enter the EU from the UK on July 1st, all eyes will be on Belfast, Brussels and London in the coming weeks to see who concedes first.

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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