Opinion

Newton Emerson: Donaldson's 'Kinnock moment' more like a howl of frustration

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.

(left to right) Lord Dodds of Duncairn, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson arrive at the Foreign Office in central London for a meeting with then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss about the Northern Ireland Protocol
(left to right) Lord Dodds of Duncairn, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson arrive at the Foreign Office in central London for a meeting with then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss about the Northern Ireland Protocol (left to right) Lord Dodds of Duncairn, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson arrive at the Foreign Office in central London for a meeting with then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss about the Northern Ireland Protocol

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has finally confronted internal dissent but it seems more like a howl of frustration than an exercise in discipline.

The DUP leader’s complaint that some colleagues are briefing against him follows last week’s statement from Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader in the Lords, declaring the Windsor Framework has met none of the party’s seven tests to restore Stormont. This undermined Donaldson, yet Dodds’s statement was endorsed by the party, suggesting a wider split was being frantically papered over.

Donaldson’s condemnation of people trying to “gain media coverage” might be taken as a reference to Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson but they are comic turns who know their limits, while Edwin Poots is largely a defused danger.

Dodds is respected across the party and as a peer can say what he likes. He is particularly respected by those who have never been happy with the influence of UUP defectors, such as Donaldson, or with Stormont in general.

Read more:

Lord Reg Empey says Jeffrey Donaldson is 'approaching his David Trimble moment

John Manley: Dithering Donaldson is unlikely to face down the DUP dissenters

Mary Kelly: If only there was a brave leader who could knock a few DUP heads together

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Donaldson may be facing a revolt but its size should not be overstated. The DUP’s MLAs want devolution back, the majority of its MPs are loyal to the leadership and its councillors know Stormont is the only show in town, as leaked discussions revealed during the last collapse.

A showdown with the Brexit holdouts has always been inevitable, yet with all this support and two years at the helm to prepare, Donaldson’s ‘Kinnock moment’ against his militant tendency is a tetchy scolding in an emailed newsletter, with no names mentioned. Tony Blair’s verdict on John Major springs to mind: “weak, weak, weak, weak”.

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The government has published new guidance for businesses on the Windsor Framework, covering movement of food, labelling of medicines and subsidy control.

At least as significant for Northern Ireland is the government’s simultaneous u-turn on its ‘UKCA’ accreditation mark, a rival to the EU’s CE mark. Businesses hated it, so an “indefinite extension” has been granted to continue using CE. This means the UK has given up on any significant regulatory divergence, rendering much of the argument for Brexit pointless and much of the Windsor Framework redundant.

Northern Ireland is now lumbered with complex special arrangements for compliance with EU standards, although UK standards will scarcely be different.

This is not the best of both worlds.

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A deal has been agreed on Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’, delivering more clarity and flexibility on how devolution is funded. It includes a new formula for adjusting the block grant and a new power to keep all underspent funds, which would be especially valuable at Stormont.

The deal was reached amicably and quickly, with a joint review and negotiations completed in under a year. That is despite bad blood between the SNP and Tories and chaos in both parties, with three prime ministers and two first ministers during the period. So the new fiscal deal the DUP wants for Northern Ireland is not as far off as it appears, if only it would go back to work.

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Councils in England will be able to double the council tax on second homes under the government’s new ‘levelling up’ legislation.

The secretary of state may well consider adding this to his list of revenue-raising proposals for Northern Ireland, should indirect rule drift on much longer. Nobody knows exactly how may second homes there are here but surveys by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency indicate a range between 9,000 and 27,000.

Taking that higher figure and doubling the average bill for district and regional rates would raise £30 million a year – not to be sniffed at. It compares to the £39 million that would be saved by ending free travel for the over-60s.

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Northern Ireland travellers and visitors are being denied access to duty free shopping
Northern Ireland travellers and visitors are being denied access to duty free shopping Northern Ireland travellers and visitors are being denied access to duty free shopping

UK airports lost duty free shopping for EU flights after Brexit. Airports in Britain had this restored in 2021 but Northern Ireland was excluded from the deal, which was blamed at the time on Protocol negotiations.

All three airports here have now demanded a resolution but the Treasury says this is impossible as it would require checks at the border. This is extraordinarily petty. With few exceptions, duty-free shopping is only available in departure terminals beyond security. Private planes use separate facilities. So duty-free goods could only leak into the Republic on scheduled cross-border flights, of which there are currently none.

There have been such services in the past and attempts are occasionally made to revive them. If a departure gate was arranged that bypassed the shops, would the Treasury’s excuse still hold?

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A statue has been unveiled in Belfast of American anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, who visited the city in the 1840s. It is reported to be the first in Europe, which is revenge on Cork for pilfering the legacy of the Titanic.

Douglass spent more time in Cork than elsewhere in Ireland. He is honoured there with a mural, heritage trail and regular events but there is no statue, despite years of calls and efforts to erect one.

In 2011, a sculptor was appointed to have a statue ready for President Obama to unveil on his visit to Cork that year. The finished piece is highly regarded but the project ran late and it ended up at the University of Maryland instead.

A statute of Frederick Douglass has been unveiled in Belfast
A statute of Frederick Douglass has been unveiled in Belfast A statute of Frederick Douglass has been unveiled in Belfast