Opinion

Simon Harris has made his position on united Ireland clear – Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson offers his inimitable take on the week’s news

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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Higher Education Minister Simon Harris with tánaiste Micheál Martin

Simon Harris, Ireland’s minister for science and further education, appears to be heading for a coronation following the shock resignation of Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach.

Although he has been in the cabinet for almost a decade, Harris’s views are hard to pin down. He is infamously bland on ideology, preferring to promote himself as a hard-working pragmatist. Critics accuse him of being driven by ambition.

But on the all-important question of what this means for Northern Ireland, there is some clarity. In a speech last August, widely seen as a pitch for the leadership, Harris strongly advocated a united Ireland, clearly as a way to head off Sinn Féin.

Simon Harris (righ) is overwhelming favourite to succeed Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach
Coronavirus - Fri Jun 19, 2020 Simon Harris (righ) is overwhelming favourite to succeed Leo Varadkar as Fine Gael leader and taoiseach (Julien Behal/PA)

“No one party in this Republic has a monopoly on that aspiration,” he said.

“Sloganeering is not a policy, and in isolation can offend. In fact, sometimes those who portray themselves as the most committed can, through their actions and inaction, end up driving people on this island further apart. A united Ireland cannot be just about geographic unity, it must be about hearts and minds. It must be about people. It must be about inclusion and respect.”

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A computer generated image of the first phase of the £500m Tribeca Belfast development
A computer generated image of the first phase of the proposed Tribeca Belfast development

English developer Castlebrooke Investments has applied to renew the planning permission for its stalled Tribeca scheme, responsible for much of the dereliction in central Belfast. Planning permission expires after five years if no work has begun. Renewal is normally a formality but Department for Infrastructure policy permits a refusal where “continued failure to begin the development will contribute unacceptably to uncertainty about the future pattern of development in the area”.

There seems little doubt this could apply to Tribeca. The question is whether it would solve the problem or make matters worse. Castlebrooke could be renewing in order to sell the site. Some elected representatives believe this is on the horizon and the only realistic way to make progress. Refusal might bankrupt the company, which could also put the land in market, or tie it up for years in legal arguments.

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The Coopers Court apartments in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter
Residents have been advised to vacate the Coopers Court apartments in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter

The evacuation of yet another apartment block in Belfast raises a question about the effectiveness of building regulations in Northern Ireland.

Radius Housing has had to move all 30 residents out of Coopers Court in the Cathedral Quarter after identifying “serious safety, design and construction issues” with the 18-year-old building. All these issues are covered by statutory regulations, which council building control departments enforce by inspecting new buildings at the planning and completion stages. Obviously, this is a complicated subject and problems can be missed, but something is awry if councils are missing problems basic enough to make relatively new buildings dangerously uninhabitable.

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TUV's Jim Allister and his wife Ruth after Mr Allister becomes the first MLA elected for North Antrim, at the Ballymena count. Picture by Cliff Donaldson.
TUV leader Jim Allister with his wife Ruth after he being elected MLA for North Antrim

The TUV was exceptionally unlucky in the 2022 assembly election, winning only one seat despite tripling its vote to 7.6 per cent, within a whisker of the eight-seat SDLP.

Transfer-unfriendliness plus excellent vote management by the DUP denied it the Stormont strength it ought to have under proportional representation. Unfairly, perhaps, the narrative of a TUV surge became perceptions of a TUV peak.

The party’s new partnership with Reform UK cannot turn this around. Its first test at the ballot box will be a general election, where it has no chance of winning a seat and even its staunchest supporters may see it as a wasted vote.

Jim Allister’s party might unseat the DUP in East Belfast by letting in Alliance but the DUP will use that prospect to rally unionist voters behind it. If the TUV’s vote share falls significantly below 7.6 per cent, as seems likely, its partnership will be seen to have immediately failed and the narrative will become one of a tide that has gone out.

Two weeks ago, Allister mocked the DUP as “DUP Nua” – a daring quip from a man who had just created UCUNF Nua.



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(l to r) Jamie Bryson, Jim Allister and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson attend a rally in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol in Lurgan, County Armagh in 2022
(l to r) Jamie Bryson, Jim Allister and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at a rally in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol in Lurgan, Co Armagh in 2022 (Liam McBurney/PA)

Allister has also been mocking the DUP over the latest sea border statistics, which show inspections running at 6,000 identity checks and 600 physical checks per month. This is similar to a year ago, implying the Windsor Framework and the DUP-Tory Safeguarding the Union deals have made no difference.

Of course, the protocol was not being implemented a year ago, so the subsequent deals could be said to have made that official. The checks are a tiny proportion of all shipments and even that is due to halve by next year.

The DUP could be presenting all this as a success but Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his deal delivered “zero checks”, so even one check now looks like a failure.

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Wales has become the first country in the UK to drop the default speed limit from 30mph to 20mph in built-up areas (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Wales has commenced enforcement of a new 20mph urban speed limit

Wales has commenced enforcement of its new 20mph urban speed limit. Alliance has said it would like to adopt this in residential areas of Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin infrastructure minister John O’Dowd has agreed to consider it. As Stormont is so often condemned for its populism, both parties should be congratulated for even discussing something so contentious it prematurely ended the career of Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford.

The effective limit in Wales is 24mph due to the standard leeway allowed by the police of 10 per cent plus 2mph. Last year, a Westminster committee said a better approach would be strictly enforcing 30mph limits with no leeway. As O’Dowd has pointed out, it is futile to lower limits when limits are widely ignored.

All-Ireland harmonisation could be another consideration for Sinn Féin. The Republic is cutting its 40kph urban limit to 30kph this year – from 25mph to 18mph in old money.

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A cycle lane

The Department for Infrastructure is building a high-quality footpath and cycleway beside the Coleraine ring road. The £1.75m cost is 10 per cent of Stormont’s annual active travel budget and a huge sum for an individual project.

Footpaths are a scandalously neglected aspect of transport, most cycle paths are a joke, and this project explains why. To meet their box-ticking targets on active travel, officials will happily splurge money on a path that is easy to build, even if it will be barely used – few people will be taking a dander around the Coleraine ring road.

Paths into town would be transformative but they are fiddlier to arrange and shorter per pound spent, so the department cannot be bothered with them.

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North Belfast grammar school Belfast Royal Academy has revealed its fee-charging primary school, Ben Madigan, is in financial distress and will submit a development proposal to the Department of Education.

This legal process requires the school to assess how its “financial and other resources” might be used to save it. The most obvious asset is Ben Madigan’s five-acre site, enough for 100 houses, in a prime development location at the foot of the Cave Hill. Most of it comprises underused playing fields. The school could sell them for millions, sit tight on the proceeds and use the academy’s playing fields instead.