Newton Emerson: Does not saying no mean yes?

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.

Newton Emerson
Newton Emerson Newton Emerson

The DUP has not said no to the Windsor Framework, which means it will eventually say yes. Or at least it will not say no until yes is implied.

The clearest sign this is coming is the DUP going on the attack over the 2020 letter demanding “rigorous implementation” of the protocol, signed by Alliance, the Greens, the SDLP and Sinn Féin. The DUP is bolstering a line that its pressure delivered change others said was impossible.

Ian Paisley was quick to say the DUP should continue its Stormont boycott to extract further concessions. But he linked this to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, suggesting even he only imagines another six weeks of stalling.

The real hold-out looks like Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s original Brexiteer, who is deeply unimpressed with the deal. He is one of the 12 party officers who must decide whether to accept it.


Dodds has objected to the Stormont brake – as has Sammy Wilson, another party officer – for being in reality a Westminster brake. More interesting is the Norwegian comparison made by British and European politicians, officials and experts.

Norway and two other countries in the European Free Trade Association are in the single market via the European Economic Area, with a similar ‘emergency brake’ on EU law.

It seems that some in London and Brussels think Northern Ireland might show the path towards a Norway-type arrangement for the whole UK.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was asked about the Norway model last week in the Commons. He objected that it would still mean Northern Ireland being treated differently to Britain. That was not an objection to Britain following suit.


Alliance has complained the Stormont brake discriminates against it by using the petition of concern.

Any 30 MLAs can raise a petition, regardless of their designation. This is used to apply the brake.

Unionists and nationalists receive preferential treatment in the cross-community vote that follows, which under the Windsor Framework dis-applies the brake. That does discriminate against ‘others’. However, there is more going on.

Application of the brake is in the legal text of the framework but there is nothing on the cross-community vote. Instead, the government is promising to consult with Stormont parties on changing the law enacting the Good Friday Agreement, so the brake cannot be dis-applied without cross-community consent.

This opens the door to Stormont reform. Parties could lobby for a new definition of a cross-community vote based on a weighted majority, rather than on designations.

Alliance has been given an opportunity to get the changes it has always wanted.


Washington has been quiet on Northern Ireland for the past two months, reportedly at London’s request. Welcoming the Windsor Framework, President Biden said US special envoy Joe Kennedy will now drive efforts to support our “vast economic potential”.

Kennedy was appointed special envoy for economic affairs in December. After initial statements, next to nothing has been heard from him and he has yet to visit or schedule a visit. This may be commendable patience but it cannot drag on much longer, regardless of foot-dragging by the DUP. What is no doubt a diplomatic silence is at risk of becoming rather awkward.


With only two months until council elections, Belfast-based electoral reform group the de Borda Institute has made its traditional plea – this time with a petition – to fix deficiencies in the law.

In Northern Ireland, parties can campaign on polling day, including at polling stations. More disturbingly, they can nominate agents to sit at each desk inside stations. Supposedly to check the issuing of ballots, this is known to result in information being passed outside to canvassers. It also means parties know how everyone votes.

All these practices breach international standards. They deserve for more attention than the debate over posters that occurs around every election.


The Green Party has secured a motion at Belfast City Council to set up a safe injecting facility to prevent drug overdoses. By bringing in experts to talk to councillors, the Greens got all-party support – quite an achievement, given the complexity and sensitivity of the issue.

Drug misuse laws mean injecting facilities are illegal. The Greens hope all-party consensus, plus debate on opening facilities in Scotland and Dublin, can move the conversation up to Stormont.

However, contrary to some media reports, Stormont would then need to take it up with Westminster. Drug misuse laws are not devolved and the government is opposed to devolving or changing them.


The PSNI has given up on the pavement parking anarchy in central Belfast.

It had run occasional campaigns, most recently in 2021, warning obstruction of pavements is a criminal offence. It has now informed journalist Shauna Corr that parking offences are “decriminalised” and “enforcement is the responsibility of the Department for Infrastructure”.

The department says obstruction remains a PSNI responsibility.

Stormont’s absence is not helping the legal confusion and it would be understandable if the PSNI had other priorities for its limited resources. But it should say so instead of passing the buck.

It would also be useful to know the PSNI’s view on public action. In the 1990s, police in London permitted activists to physically bounce cars off pavements into the street.