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Newton Emerson: Foster needs to tell DUP Brexiteers to move on

Pictured in happier times, DUP MP Ian Paisley and Boris Johnson; the former allies are in dispute over the Brexit sea border. Picture by Justin Kernoghan

THE DUP is starting to resolve its internal dispute over making the sea border work, as broadly advocated by leader Arlene Foster, versus demanding its abolition, as sought with increasing anguish by the party's hardline Brexiteers.

At prime minister's questions, Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP's leader in the Commons, asked Boris Johnson to "consider" suspending the sea border using Article 16 of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, due to a list of frictions.

Johnson gave a meaningless assurance he would do so if necessary, while dismissing the list as "teething problems".

Deputy prime minister Michael Gove then promised solutions to specific frictions.

Finally, Foster welcomed Johnson's "willingness and commitment to use Article 16".

The DUP leadership has thus appeared to humour abolition while still seeking to make the sea border work.

This might be ingenious party management but is it all too clever by half? It replaces a positive pursuit of Brexit's 'best of both worlds' with surly negativity. It makes it harder for the DUP to claim credit as the sea border settles down.

Above all, it is both too nuanced for most voters to follow yet still too obviously cynical for almost anyone to be fooled.

Real leadership would be telling the Brexiteers to move on.

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The severity of the Covid crisis has led to a DUP-Sinn Féin truce, at least regarding the optics of the first ministers' working relationship.

In their first press conference in over a month, Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill summoned Belfast's media to an outdoor stage on the Hill of the O'Neill in Dungannon, where they delivered a firm, collegiate message against unnecessary travel.

As if that irony was not enough, the two-metre gap between both women was filled in the vista behind them by the spire of St Patrick's - literally one of Churchill's dreary steeples.

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The £100 High Street voucher scheme announced last November by DUP economy minister Diana Dodds has hit the predictable and predicted problem of not being delivered before the end of the public sector's financial year in March, meaning the £95 million allocated to it from the executive's budget may have to be returned to London.

No wonder the Department for the Economy has been short-tempered with queries from the media and the assembly's scrutiny committee. One official told the BBC they would not provide a "running commentary".

In economics, giving the public cash to stimulate spending is known as 'helicopter money'.

Dodds could go down in the textbooks for inventing a stimulus scheme that takes money away.

What is the opposite of a helicopter? A submarine?

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In what is certainly not a distraction from floundering over her own remit, Diane Dodds has called for the army to be brought in so its "skills and logistical expertise" can help with the Covid surge in hospitals.

This was ridiculed by UUP MLA Doug Beattie, a former soldier, who pointed out the army's Covid unit is already deployed here on logistical duties, it has "quite a small number" of staff and the military "simply do not have the medically qualified people" to prop up NHS hospitals.

Dodds might have expected more support, given that Sinn Féin attacked UUP health minister Robin Swann last year when he requested military assistance.

However, that was to consider a second Nightingale Hospital - effectively, a field hospital - for which army help was appropriate.

**

With the cancellation of this year's AQE tests, grammars have been scrambling to devise non-academic admissions criteria.

Many have specified 'old school tie'-type parent or past pupil connections, in breach of Department of Education guidelines issued last October. DUP minister Peter Weir has had to remind them they are not being funded to run a golf club.

Even more dubious is the requirement from some schools that siblings have a parent in common.

A sibling rule that excludes step-children will not survive any legal challenge. Should institutions that boast of churning out lawyers not know this?

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Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown, chairman of CCMS, has said "business has become a major element" in academic selection, noting the AQE test company collects £500,000 in fees every year, with the private tutoring sector worth perhaps five times more.

This echoes recent aspersions from Sinn Féin about AQE being a "private company".

In truth, the financial lesson from AQE, which has nine staff, is how little revenue, resources, pay and profit it needs to run a test. Nor can this money be motivating grammars, as they do not see a penny of it.

The awkward fact for opponents of selection is that most people who disagree with them hold deep convictions and have sincere concerns that need to be addressed. Failing to take that seriously is one reason why progress on this issue has been so elusive.

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News that Danish political drama Borgen is filming a fourth series has been welcomed by UUP leader Steve Aiken.

"It was always my hope that Northern Ireland politics would be more 'Borgen' than 'House of Cards'," he tweeted.

How much more like Stormont does he want the programme to be? All three series so far have involved the lead character agonising about going into coalition with nationalists.

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