Opinion

Newton Emerson: Purdah, election disasters and the week that was

Our columnist rounds up the week’s stories

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.

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Ian Paisley leaves after losing his North Antrim seat (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

The only consistent feature of the DUP’s election disaster is disaster itself. In three safe unionist constituencies, the party lost to the TUV, the UUP and Alliance. So what message were voters sending, other than being so fed up they would turn to anyone else?

Many other former DUP voters simply stayed at home. This must all have reflected frustration with the party’s Brexit manoeuvring, yet leader Gavin Robinson did relatively well against Alliance in East Belfast, despite being responsible for recent manoeuvres.

This has secured Robinson’s position, despite presiding over what is arguably his party’s worst-ever electoral setback. There will be quiet relief in some DUP circles that Ian Paisley has gone and the DUP can move beyond its Paisleyite roots. However, Paisley lost to TUV leader Jim Allister, suggesting the party needs to reconnect with ‘traditional’ unionism.

It is clear the DUP will have to fundamentally rethink its way forward, but the signs from this election are pointing in different directions.

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Six weeks ago, Belfast High Court struck down legislation that gave anonymity to people accused but not charged of sexual offences, extending to 25 years after death.

Alliance justice minister Naomi Long, who piloted the law through Stormont, has dropped her intention to appeal the verdict, as her concerns were not shared by other ministers. But did she have a point? Long received advice the ruling had serious constitutional implications because the judge based much of his ruling on the low standard of executive and assembly debate. She warned the courts could now strike down any law where a “high standard” of debate could not be demonstrated.

In fact, the judge said there had been “no debate” on press freedom “throughout the legislative process”, despite a legal duty to consider its human rights aspect. Nor had there been “any debate or discussion” of the points the Department of Justice later offered in defence of the Act in court. Had there been any such debate, of any quality, the ruling would presumably have been different.

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SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole asked about the devolution of more fiscal powers to Stormont
SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole (David Young/PA)

The SDLP has said it was “shameless and shocking” for the executive to announce a monitoring round three days before an election. The thrice-yearly reallocation of unspent funds had £300 million to hand out. It was scheduled for June but the SDLP said it could have waited until after the vote.

Although Stormont does not go into full purdah during Westminster elections, the civil service code requires officials to be careful that announcements do not “have a bearing” on the results.

The top civil servant at the Department of Finance said officials had been careful by not releasing any statements from individual ministers boasting about their windfalls.

In any case, a media triumph was hardly assured. Health got far less than demanded by the UUP, which controls that department and has been electioneering around its opposition to the budget. The UUP gave the monitoring round a grudging acknowledgement, suggesting a brief truce was arranged.

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Sinn Fein economy minister Conor Murphy has launched a consultation on significant changes to employment law, via a bill he hopes to bring to the assembly next year. His proposed measures include a ban on zero-hours contracts.

The SDLP asked if this should have been announced during pre-election purdah. A better question is why we have heard so little about labour market regulation when it is considered so important in economic theory and policy. The subject has always been devolved, yet this is the first time Stormont has tried to do much with it.

Even this is no brave innovation - Murphy’s bill will largely copy changes Labour is proposing for Britain.

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Agriculture minister Andrew Muir in Parliament Buildings .
Agriculture minister Andrew Muir in Parliament Buildings

Alliance agriculture minister Andrew Muir is neatly avoiding traps over lack of Stormont debate, or failing to bring certain decisions to the executive - the reason the Larne gas caverns project recently lost its licence at the Court of Appeal.

Muir has prepared a 37-point action plan for Lough Neagh, a legal requirement. He has put it before the executive to approve, given its “Northern Ireland-wide, strategic and cross-cutting” nature.

DUP ministers are reportedly withholding approval because the plan contains new restrictions on farmers. This would be clearer if the final executive meeting before the election had not been cancelled. Muir has advised the assembly he is patiently awaiting approval but in the meantime his department can proceed with the 20 actions within its remit, which of course include restrictions on farmers.

Because the DUP’s behaviour was predictable, it is safe to assume Muir predicted it.

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Catholics are twice as likely as Protestants to be arrested by the PSNI, twice as likely to be charged and Catholic young people are twice as likely to be stopped and searched. Figures have not changed in the 15 years they have been available.

These are the findings from the latest five-year human rights report to the Policing Board by its human rights adviser John Wadham, whose post was once held by Keir Starmer.

Wadham is fairly sanguine about the disparity, which most likely has a range of socio-economic and statistical explanations beyond the PSNI’s control. One he notes is that half of those arrested do not state a religion, up from a quarter since 2011.

Wadham’s concern is that the PSNI failed to bring the figures to the attention of the Board, failed to analyse them for possible discrimination and is still dragging its feet over doing so. This is “surprising”, he drily observes, but it is a lose-lose situation for the PSNI. Explaining itself would mean admitting discrimination, boldly declaring Catholics commit more crime, or a mix of both.

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Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd had considered the report
Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd (Liam McBurney/PA)

John O’Dowd’s patience has snapped with the Into The West rail campaign.

The Derry-based group accused the Sinn Féin infrastructure minister of “delay and discrimination” on a planned upgrade of the Coleraine to Derry line, due to start next year, adding “this calls into question his sincerity to see the project actually happen”.

O’Dowd explained he is funding the project through Stormont’s cycle of one-year budgets and “I take great exception to my sincerity being questioned”.

There is rather too much patience with Into The West, a group whose demands range from the realistic to the absurd. It wants a new line to Enniskillen, for example, a project so unviable even the fantasy Draft All-Island Strategic Rail Review does not pretend it might ever be built.