Newton Emerson: Direction of travel on Europe for Keir Starmer is clear

Irish News columnist Newton Emerson offers his inimitable take on the week’s news headlines...

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.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaking in front of supporters holding 'Change' placards during a visit to Gillingham Football Club in Kent
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Gillingham Football Club in Kent on the first full day of the general election campaign trail. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire (Gareth Fuller/Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

It seems as certain as anything can be in politics that Keir Starmer will be prime minister six weeks from now.

His government will pursue a closer alignment with Europe that should reverse the post-Brexit mechanisms driving Britain and Northern Ireland apart. The Labour leader has already pledged to use the 2025 review of the UK-EU trade deal to seek a veterinary agreement, which would remove most sea border checks.

He says he will scrap the Rwanda scheme on “day one” and cooperate with the EU on immigration. That should scupper ideas of a ‘people sea border’ and prevent the emergence of a rights sea border, when combined with his obvious commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights.

There is a long way to go but the direction of travel is clear. Much unionist and nationalist reaction will be entertainingly strangulated. The DUP still cannot bring itself to advocate for a soft Brexit or even to embrace Labour, despite all the Tories have done to it. Although the UUP has a better Brexit policy it is anyone’s guess how much of the party supports it.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) and deputy leader Angela Rayner (right)
The direction of travel for Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer (left) and deputy leader Angela Rayner (right) is clear (Gareth Fuller/Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

The SDLP and Sinn Féin say they oppose the Conservatives and Brexit, yet they hardly want the damage to the union to be undone.

Appropriately enough, getting what you claim to want but do not want is the worst of both worlds.


Members of a flute band pass Belfast City Hall as they take part in a Twelfth of July parade (Liam McBurney/PA)
What impact will the Twelfth have on the general election in Northern Ireland

The UK has held a general election in early July only once in modern times, straight after the war in 1945, so the impact of the Twelfth on Northern Ireland turnout lacks data, to put it mildly. Compared to the previous election in 1935, the nationalist vote share fell but the UUP vote share did not rise, with all gains going to Labour and liberal unionist independents.

Perhaps nationalists went to Donegal, unionists stayed at home and Orangemen annoyed liberal unionists into voting for somebody else.


Another major fish kill due to slurry, this time in the Four Mile Burn near Ballyclare, highlights the approach to such pollution by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the enforcement body of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Alan Lewis - PhotopressBelfast.co.uk         19-5-2024
A major pollution incident has occured on the Four Mile Burn, a tributary of the Sixmilewater River in County Antrim.
Hundreds of dead juvenile fish including salmon , trout and dollaghan are reported by the local Antrim and District Angling Association.
This time of year is particularly important as young salmon smolts are making their way from the upstream spawning areas down to the sea where they will live before returning to their home rivers 3-4 years later as mature fish.
The dollaghan are indigenous to Lough Neagh and like the salmon migrate from the lough upstream to spawn.
One angry local angler called it a disaster that will have ramifications for years to come.
He said :   “ This is an eco crime and should be dealt with accordingly. Whoever is responsible should be made an example of by the courts. This is happening too regulary and the people responsible usually get a slap on the wrists and a ridiculously small fine.
The Minister at Stormont and the Justice Minister shoud get together to make sure there are proper deterrents in place for the guilty parties.”
Hundreds of dead juvenile fish were reported on the Four Mile Burn, a tributary of the Sixmilewater River in County Antrim (Alan Lewis - Photopress Belfast/Photopress Belfast)

The agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ulster Farmers’ Union in June 2017 agreeing to take a primarily educational rather than an adversarial approach to improving water quality, for example by no longer prosecuting minor infractions. This is all quite reasonable and fashionable in regulatory circles. However, the memorandum also agreed to regularly review progress. By what possible measure could it be judged a success, given the decline in most waterways since and the death of Lough Neagh, into which the Four Mile Burn flows?

It must also be asked how such a significant policy was agreed during Stormont’s collapse, when civil servants were otherwise claiming they could barely use the photocopier without ministerial direction.


The SDLP says it is “odd” that Alliance justice minister Naomi Long has changed her plan for a hate crime bill, a flagship party policy her officials have been working on for four years.

Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long
Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long (David Young/PA)

Long says she is as committed to the legislation as ever but Stormont’s recent collapse means there is no time for a standalone bill in the current mandate, so all its key provisions could be added to other bills to ensure they are delivered. The minister cannot be too pleased about this new plan, as it had to be coaxed out of her with a written question.

Suspicions have arisen because a similar law in Scotland and proposed legislation in the Republic have proved disastrous for the Scottish and Irish governments. If Long is not considering a quiet retreat, she ought to be.


The Education Authority advised several special schools that parents and volunteers could cover striking support staff. This beggars belief, even by the EA’s lamentable standards. Parents and volunteers would be exempt from the requirement for an enhanced criminal record check if they worked for no more than three days. However, they would still lack any training, making the whole exercise a safety, safeguarding and liability nightmare.

Just to suggest it reveals the EA does not take non-teaching jobs seriously, although support staff should not feel too offended. The EA does not take its own job seriously either.


UUP leader Doug Beattie says he will direct his assembly members to vote against the budget if “the unworkable allocation for health is not improved”.

The Department of Health is under the UUP’s only minister, Robin Swann. Beattie did not say his party would quit the executive and go into opposition, as would be expected in any political system where a coalition member opposes the budget.

The UUP's Robin Swann (left), Doug Beattie (centre) and Mike Nesbitt speak to the media about the latest Stormont budget in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings
The UUP's Robin Swann (left), Doug Beattie (centre) and Mike Nesbitt. PICTURE: David Young/PA Wire (David Young/David Young/PA Wire)

A Stormont party has two years to enter official opposition after an executive is formed, under reforms introduced by New Decade, New Approach.

In February, Beattie revealed he wanted to go into opposition but colleagues talked him out of it. Rather than making the prospect of quitting more credible, this is all just emphasising the weakness of Beattie’s leadership.


The Cathedral Quarter Trust has urged Belfast City Council to refuse five-year renewal of planning permission for the stalled Tribeca scheme, on the grounds that developer Castlebrooke Investments “has no intention of beginning work”.

The Cathedral Quarter Trust are objecting to Castlebrooke's efforts to renew planning permission for the Tribeca scheme. 
Sorcha Wolsey, Dean Stephen Forde and Anne McReynolds from Cathedral Quarter Trust who are objecting to Castlebrooke's efforts to renew planning permission for the Tribeca scheme. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

This is a serious appeal from serious people: the trust includes businesses and Ulster University. Planning policy permits refusal and it could solve the Tribeca problem at no public expense: Castlebrooke would have to put the land back on the market. However, councillors could expect a legal challenge and other legal complexities, which officials will advise them to avoid.

Councillors have demonstrated a willingness to defy such advice regarding individual landlords. Defying a developer, even one as relatively small as Castlebrooke, is another matter.


A £50 billion hedge fund, founded by GB News co-owner Paul Marshall, made headlines in the international financial press last week when it bet against two of Northern Ireland’s biggest technology firms – speculative behaviour that can have damaging real-world consequences.

Trip-tech of images comprised of exterior signage of Kainos' Belfast office and FD Technologies' Newry office, with Paul Marshall in the centre.
A hedge fund founded by GB News co-owner Paul Marshall (centre) took up short positions against Belfast software group Kainos and Newry tech firm FD Technologies

The fund bet £78 million against Belfast software company Kainos and another £2.6m against Newry financial software specialist FD Technologies. Other funds began doing the same, as gamblers move in herds.

This week, Kainos reported annual profit growth of 14 per cent to a neatly coincidental £77m. FD Technologies maintained profit levels and grew revenue by 2 per cent. How satisfying to see them keep it between the hedges.