Newton Emerson: Surprising that Sinn Féin against Stormont rule change

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Michelle O'Neill has disagreed with Alliance's call for Stormont reform, saying: 'The rules are the rules.'
Michelle O'Neill has disagreed with Alliance's call for Stormont reform, saying: 'The rules are the rules.' Michelle O'Neill has disagreed with Alliance's call for Stormont reform, saying: 'The rules are the rules.'

“If the DUP don’t want to be part of a government, then it should be possible for them to go into opposition,” Naomi Long has declared, explaining why Alliance is calling for Stormont reform. It is surprising Sinn Féin so vehemently disagrees.

“The rules are the rules”, O’Neill told UTV on Monday, when pressed on the same point.

Stormont’s rules were significantly changed as recently as January, enacting reforms agreed in New Decade, New Approach. It is now possible for one of the two largest parties to leave the executive for up to six months, or over a year either side of an election. Would four years between elections be such a momentous extension?


Sinn Féin and the SDLP are both proposing a £200 payment to every voter, sorry, household for rising energy bills. This would be funded from the £300 million frozen in Stormont’s bank account due to the DUP huff. The DUP is also promising an “energy support payment” in its manifesto.

Universal flat rate payments are a grotesquely inefficient way to get help to where it is needed. In this instance, it cannot even be justified as a quick way to disburse funds in an emergency. A means-tested payment through the benefits system would be far faster than waiting for Stormont to post everyone a cheque, as demonstrated by last month’s £200 energy payment to a third of households, compared to the protracted roll-out of the Covid shopping voucher.

Spring has now arrived and energy prices have hopefully stabilised. Stormont has until next winter to come up with a proper policy.


Campaign group An Dream Dearg has published an open letter calling for “the immediate implementation of Irish language legislation”.

The letter, with 1,000 signatories, is addressed to the five main Stormont parties and the British and Irish governments as co-guarantors of New Decade, New Approach. It blames London and the DUP for the interminable delay.

Although An Dream Dearg is an Irish language group, it is a little odd it made no mention of the Ulster-Scots and other cultural legislation in the overall language deal, especially as the current hold-up is apparently because Sinn Féin objects to the title of the Ulster-Scots/British commissioner.


A solution is suddenly in sight for the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI), the privatised operator - though not owner or maintainer - of the electricity grid, whose treatment of consumers, employees and whistleblowers is increasingly raising concern.

The government has just announced it is to rapidly re-nationalise SONI’s equivalent on the mainland (the British commissioner will let me say ‘mainland’) to cope with the challenges of decarbonisation. Breaking up natural monopolies into arcane privatised functions is an idea whose time is coming to an end.


The reason the Conservatives are flip-flopping over outlawing gay conversion therapy is not because they are homophobic or transphobic - the law is their idea. It is because of the extraordinary technical challenge of drafting a ban on so-called therapy that in legal and regulatory terms might be merely a private conversation, often in a religious setting, without breaching rights protections or banning real therapy for transgender cases.

Stormont has yet to attempt a ban but it is about to run into a similar problem. Alliance justice minister Naomi Long has published her proposed Hate Crime Bill. This follows the recommendation of a judge-led review in 2020 to replace the defence of using hateful speech in a private dwelling with using it in a “private conversation”.

Secular and faith groups have expressed fears the bill will criminalise hate speech in the home. It is more likely to accidentally legalise it in church.


A government minister has admitted the UK needs to consult with Ireland on the electronic visa waiver it is introducing for third-country citizens crossing the border.

“We do accept the need for further dialogue with interlocuters including the Irish government, Tourism Ireland and Tourism Northern Ireland,” Susan Williams told the House of Lords. Yet she was also clear the scheme must go ahead unaltered, so what is there to discuss?

Forgoing the £10 charge on each waiver is the obvious item on the table. For overnight visitors alone, this would cost around £50 million a year - twice Tourism Northern Ireland’s budget.

Although the actual cost of processing free waivers would be much less, £50 million is the loss that would show up in the national accounts.


There was dismay in south Belfast earlier this year when the Department for Infrastructure chopped down mature trees along the Lagan. Now residents in Craigavon are aghast after trees were ripped out along the city’s central axis. Neither Stormont nor the council have admitted responsibility but there is no mystery over why this happens. Working around or underneath trees takes a little more time, therefore costing a little more money. Public bodies must accept the lowest bid for a contract. So unless they clearly specify and budget to preserve trees, the cheapest and choppiest bid always wins. No doubt some of the felled wood will be recycled into policy documents on the environment.