Newton Emerson: Is Jeffrey Donaldson's cat dead or alive?

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

The DUP might struggle with evolution but its leader has a dry appreciation of quantum physics.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told Cool FM his party cannot be split on returning to Stormont as it has not yet made a decision. Only when this radioactive box is opened will we know if Donaldson’s cat is alive or dead.

The government has tried to force the issue by briefing it will implement the Windsor Framework from October, seizing devolved powers where necessary. So the DUP might as well go back to work.

However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is promising a closer EU-UK trade deal, while France and Germany are proposing the UK have a new form of EU associate membership, making the sea border redundant.

So the DUP might think its safest option is to wait until the Tories are gone. Waiting seems more likely by the day.


Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris at Erskine House, Belfast


Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has ordered every Stormont department to begin public consultation on revenue-raising measures, including water charges and higher university tuition fees. He will personally review domestic and business rates. Tax levels in Britain are the basis of most proposals.

This moves beyond the punishment budget strategy to a pre-negotiation on Stormont’s long-term finances, if and when devolution returns. Heaton-Harris makes no mention of acting on the consultation responses himself. They are to be left for an incoming executive.

When it asks for more money, London can ask how much Stormont will raise. When the DUP presses for a Welsh-type Barnett formula, the government can note the Welsh pay council tax and water charges equivalent to twice our domestic rates.

It is unlikely a Labour government would approach this any differently. Labour tried bringing in water charges here two decades ago.

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Prime minister Rishi Sunak has suddenly changed the UK’s deadline to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars, moving it back from 2030 to 2035.

Whatever other controversy this is causing, it avoids a looming controversy in Northern Ireland. The EU’s equivalent ban, which will apply here under the Windsor Framework, is to be phased in from 2030 to 2035. That would have meant five years when people in Britain could have bought petrol and diesel cars here and brought them home without restriction, due to ‘unfettered’ west-east trade.

It might seem our car dealers will now miss out on a bonanza but in reality the political pressure to impose some fetters would have been intense, assuming the whole UK was not back in the single market by then anyway.


A mallard duck swims through the sludge of green algae at Kinnego Marina on Lough Neagh


The SDLP has launched an assembly recall petition to debate the “ecological crisis” in Lough Neagh. The DUP has dismissed it as “a stunt” and will refuse to turn up.

This is a neat reversal from October 2019, during the last collapse, when the DUP recalled the assembly to debate abortion. The SDLP dismissed it as “a stunt” and refused to turn up. The power of recalls to subvert boycotts has been squandered by such grandstanding.


Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy has conceded the executive mismanaged Lough Neagh. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he said Stormont should have done more to help farmers cut nitrate pollution but he declined to say there should be fines or any reduction in intensive agriculture.

Farmers in the Republic are objecting strongly to a new EU nitrates limit and Sinn Féin has said it supports them. Farmers are a key southern electoral target for the party, it will do nothing to upset them and it will permit nothing in the north that contradicts its position in the south. Similar manoeuvring over welfare reform brought the executive to a standstill for three years.


Dysfunctional Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is facing an overspend of £7 million this year, close to a tenth of its income, an external audit has discovered. With Birmingham and other councils in England reported as going bankrupt, the question arises if the same could happen here.

Strictly speaking, councils cannot go bankrupt. The ‘section 114 notices’ used in England declare an unmanageable budget. Other established processes then freeze spending, prioritise essential services and seek government intervention.

Little of this exists in Northern Ireland, even when Stormont is there to help. As a Westminster report noted sweetly last week, our much simpler and better-funded councils should never get into that much trouble. If they do, it will be uncharted territory.


There will be increasing pressure for a restored Stormont to roll out more 20mph speed limits, as a similar limit is introduced across Wales and an even lower 30kph (18mph) limit is under consideration in the Republic.

Two weeks ago, Westminster’s all-party committee on walking and cycling proposed a much better idea: strictly enforcing existing limits. The police policy of allowing a 10 per cent plus 2mph leeway means the 30mph limit is effectively 35mph.

If it were really 30mph, with a real chance of being caught, people would drive closer to 25mph, a speed comfortable to maintain in third gear.

Alas this is far too sensible to ever be pursued. Some new signs will be put up that everyone ignores so parties can claim to have done something.