Opinion

Newton Emerson: Why can't Jeffrey Donaldson do the Stormont show for real?

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.

Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey, welcomes the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs Joseph Kennedy III and Ambassador Jane Hartley to Parliament Buildings
Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey, welcomes the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs Joseph Kennedy III and Ambassador Jane Hartley to Parliament Buildings Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey, welcomes the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs Joseph Kennedy III and Ambassador Jane Hartley to Parliament Buildings

IT is “absolutely embarrassing” that Stormont was suspended during the visit of a US trade delegation, UUP leader Doug Beattie has said.

It was also a little embarrassing, not to say exasperating, that Stormont still managed to put on a show.

The delegation, led by US special economic envoy Joe Kennedy, was treated to a reception in the Great Hall hosted by Sinn Féin speaker Alex Maskey – still in office in the absence of a replacement, despite no longer being an MLA.

Party leaders entered the hall by processing down the stairs. Michelle O’Neill and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson were side by side, all smiles, accompanied by Naomi Long. Beattie was behind. Out of shot in the few photos distributed to the press was SDLP assembly leader Matthew O’Toole, whose party was consigned to opposition by last year’s election.

So this was not so much a Stormont reception as a Stormont simulation of the assembly and executive to be.

If Donaldson can do this now, why not just do it for real?

Read more:

If our politicians can wine and dine together, why can't they work together?

Brian Feeney: Here's why talks are going nowhere: The Windsor Framework is more important to the British than the DUP is

Alex Kane: Jamie Bryson and Jeffrey Donaldson episodes show Westminster has lost interest in unionism

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Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker and Irish minister for finance Michael McGrath
Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker and Irish minister for finance Michael McGrath Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker and Irish minister for finance Michael McGrath

British-Irish relations are “back on a positive trajectory” after Brexit, according to Irish finance minister Michael McGrath.

That would have been the headline from the British-Irish Parliamentary Association plenary in Co Kildare, had NIO minister Steven Baker not mentioned a 60 per cent supermajority for a border poll.

Baker’s comment appears to have been a genuine misjudgement rather than a demand for attention. He was responding to a question and musing on his regret over the Brexit referendum. However, it was ‘unhelpful’, to use the NIO’s favourite term for constitutional conjecture. The secretary of state had to correct it shortly afterwards in Westminster.

Most parties wisely ignored or dismissed the remark. The SDLP issued the strongest condemnation, although its former deputy leader, the late Seamus Mallon, is one of the few people to have ever seriously proposed a supermajority requirement.

Several Fianna Fáil representatives also objected but Fine Gael was quiet.

In 2017, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said a border poll would have to pass by 70 per cent to make a united Ireland viable.

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In one of his responses to Baker’s remarks, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said “unionist votes cannot be worth more than anyone else’s”.

This is obviously the case for a border poll, as the Agreement makes clear. However, unionist and nationalist votes in assembly elections are worth more than votes for Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit. Perhaps the centre parties should set up a Stormont reform campaign for one person, one vote. The SDLP MP for Derry might find this concept vaguely familiar.

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A Fine Gael senator told the Kildare meeting that cross-border visa rules prevented Derry ambulance crews from responding to the Creeslough explosion.

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has flatly denied this and expressed concern at the story’s impact on victims.

It is no surprise the senator was misinformed, as claims about border restrictions are sometimes based more on ideology than fact. Although visa rules are about to cause a major problem for Northern Ireland’s tourism industry, they are of little practical consequence to almost anyone else. Third-country nationals legally resident north or south can buy multi-year, multi-entry visas for nominal sums. These and other arrangements cover work, study and access to public services. The system can always be improved but both governments generally cooperate on improving it.

Some people are affronted by the mere existence of borders and immigration systems. If that is their objection they should say so.

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Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Marie Anderson
Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Marie Anderson Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Marie Anderson

One of Jon Boutcher’s first acts, on being appointed PSNI interim chief constable, was to call in West Midlands Police over the crisis involving Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson.

Leadership vacuums in the Ombudsman’s office, the PSNI and at Stormont meant nothing happened for three weeks after the September 23 events at Anderson’s home, when police responded to a report of a domestic incident. In the absence of a minister, the Department of Justice did not even feel able to accept her reported offer of resignation.

Some news organisations sat on the story due to legal concerns, although this should not apply to a matter of legitimate public interest involving public authorities. Had Boutcher not stepped in, this important story might have continued languishing in obscure limbo.

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Seasonal rain and cold have removed the algae from Lough Neagh but the pollution behind it continues.

A fish kill has occurred on a mile-long stretch of a river on south Armagh that flows into the Callan, then the Blackwater, then the lough. Local anglers have described it as “the worst ever”, while some reports have described the cause as a “slurry spill”.

The media might want to reconsider this term, with its ‘whoops’-like connotations of knocking over a cup of tea. For a serious amount of slurry to get into a river, even unintentionally, serious acts of commission or omission are required.

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Alliance's Sorcha Eastwood celebrates being elected an MLA for Lagan Valley, where she hopes to challenge Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's position as MP
Alliance's Sorcha Eastwood celebrates being elected an MLA for Lagan Valley, where she hopes to challenge Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's position as MP Alliance's Sorcha Eastwood celebrates being elected an MLA for Lagan Valley, where she hopes to challenge Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's position as MP

Alliance does not do electoral pacts, as a matter of principle and also because they tend to trash a party’s brand. The Northern Ireland Greens have almost destroyed themselves due to a general election pact in 2019.

Paul Butler, a former Sinn Féin MLA, says Sinn Féin and the SDLP should stand aside in Lagan Valley anyway to help Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood challenge sitting MP Jeffrey Donaldson in the next general election, probably in a year’s time.

Alliance will be aghast at this suggestion. The combined Sinn Féin and SDLP vote in Lagan Valley in 2019 was 6 per cent. Any hint of a pact could cause a higher percentage of unionists to rally around the DUP.

Of course, a mischievous republican might have Henry Kissinger’s maxim in mind: “It’s a pity both sides can’t lose.”