Newton Emerson: Damage lurks beneath the surface as Tories have their Edwin Poots moment

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.

Boris Johnson reads a statement outside 10 Downing Street, formally resigning as Conservative Party leader Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Boris Johnson reads a statement outside 10 Downing Street, formally resigning as Conservative Party leader Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire Boris Johnson reads a statement outside 10 Downing Street, formally resigning as Conservative Party leader Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The Tories have had their Edwin Poots moment and as with that moment it will take some time for the real damage to become apparent. The immediate impact on Northern Ireland is merely delay for a leadership contest, then not much short-term prospective change on balance. The DUP will get a new prime minister who may promise unionists less, yet whose promises can only mean more. The bill to disapply the protocol will stumble or fall but it was only ever a negotiating tactic and the government’s negotiating aims will not change - even Labour shares them. The timetable to restore devolution will slip back with the bill but the October deadline for Stormont’s collapse can be moved back in turn.

The tone of UK politics and British-Irish relations may improve, which matters. But lurking beneath is the damage: a crack in the foundations of the Conservative Party that has only widened and a new leader can only patch over to hide their weakness. Jeffrey Donaldson will sympathise.


If the government had not been collapsing, more notice would have been paid to a Commons statement by Northern Ireland Office minister Conor Burns.

Responding to Alliance proposals to reform Stormont, including removing the veto of the two largest parties on forming an executive, Burns said the government’s focus is to restore power-sharing under its current rules. However, reform should then be considered by a review on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next year, bringing together parties, civic groups and universities to “update” the institutions with “cross-community consent”.

This is a new insight into government thinking, whether or not a review comes to pass. Again, a new prime minister is unlikely to think much differently.


Reform of the health service has finally taken a step forward with publication of the Review of General Surgery, commissioned by UUP minister Robin Swann.

Like all expert reports before it, this recommends moving services from small general hospitals to regional specialist centres. But review and implementation have been put into the hands of senior clinicians and the first site has promptly been announced, with Belfast’s Mater becoming the first elective overnight stay centre. Although there will be public consultation, patience with parish pump objections has run out.

Swann insists the partial suspension of devolution is not helping with delivery. After two decades of Stormont getting nowhere, it is hard not to notice suspension is barely hurting.


A “simple majority” should be enough to pass a border poll, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has told the BBC. Somehow he presented this as a rebuke to unionists, yet Varadkar is the only serving political leader to have ever suggested anything different: in 2017, as taoiseach, he said the threshold ought to be 70 per cent.

Fate has a sense of humour. Three days after the BBC interview a Fine Gael TD lost the whip, meaning Varadkar will be heading a minority government when he is taoiseach again this December.


Tackling dereliction in central Belfast would require a robust approach to property developers and landowners. For the chances of that happening, consider the Lagan Gateway in south Belfast, a footbridge, weir and lock opened last September to connect current and future greenways. Stormont and Belfast City Council split the £5.2 million cost. The council’s planning committee has now approved a development of 18 luxury houses that will block the bridge’s eastern end. Councillors accepted assurances a ‘public pathway’ will be constructed but permitted the landowner to close it for “public safety, maintenance, to assert rights of proprietorship or other necessary closures provided that the closure is agreed in advance by the council”. Agreement is only required for closures of more than 72 hours and “access can be permanently closed if a public path is provided.”

That is more than enough leeway to slam the gate shut until the council gives up and builds around it.


There has been disquiet in the past about the use of schoolchildren in political photo opportunities at Stormont, particularly for environmental policies. Whatever else might be said about the Department for Infrastructure’s latest effort, it has certainly brought balance to the issue. The department has released a video of Sinn Féin minister John O’Dowd visiting a primary school in Sion Mills, where pupils are shown urging him to build the A5 dual-carriageway, mainly for reasons of safety but also for quicker commuting to Belfast. No dissenting voice is included. This is so at odds with the green message children usually parrot back from class that the effect is really quite unnerving.


Halifax has told customers to close their accounts if they do not like its advertisement showing a staff name badge with “she/her/hers” and the slogan “pronouns matter”.

Despite media outrage, public relations experts have quietly praised this as a clever move. People who threaten to close their accounts almost never do so, as we know in Northern Ireland. Ten years ago, Ulster Bank offered customers a derisory £20 after a computer error froze their money for two months. The bank blithely explained it did not need to do more as only a tiny handful of the 600,000 customers affected would go through the bother of leaving - and it was right.