Opinion

Donaldson finally confronts unionism’s Brexit ‘100 percenters’ – Newton Emerson

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.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaking in the house of Commons with Ian Paisley sitting behind
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson mad an impassioned speech in the House of Commons

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has finally confronted unionism’s Brexit “100 percenters”, as former US senator George Mitchell witheringly described them last year.

It is two a half years since Donaldson became DUP leader, so he has taken his time arriving at this always-inevitable moment – and the confrontation was still rather less than head-on. In a Commons speech, he denounced only the TUV by name. Other unionist opponents were referred to obliquely and there was no direct challenge to the most significant 100 percenters, fellow DUP parliamentarians. The five hold-outs Donaldson reportedly faces on the party’s 12-person officer board include Lords Dodds and Morrow and MPs Sammy Wilson and Carla Lockhart.

Ian Paisley is not on the board and has fallen quiet on a Stormont deal, yet the party still seems to be wary of him. He was sitting behind Donaldson during the speech and the DUP press office went to noticeable lengths to crop him out of the footage.

It is two a half years since Donaldson became DUP leader, so he has taken his time arriving at this always-inevitable moment – and the confrontation was still rather less than head-on. He denounced only the TUV by name. Other unionist opponents were referred to obliquely and there was no direct challenge to the most significant 100 percenters, fellow DUP parliamentarians

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson speaking in the house of Commons with Ian Paisley seated behind
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson rounded on his unionist opponents in a speech in the House of Commons

On social media, one of the commonest reactions to the speech was surprise that Donaldson had been able to check the electoral register and discover a person who threatened him had not voted at the last election.

In reality, this was nothing alarming or unusual. Any political party can check the register to see who is on it. They can also buy the separate ‘marked’ register showing who voted in previous elections. Access to this information is considered important to promote political participation.

The register does not reveal how anyone voted, although some electoral reformers say it is far too easy for parties in Northern Ireland to compile that information themselves.

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Storm Isha caused a rough night for passengers crossing from Liverpool to Belfast, with the turbulent conditions delaying arrival for several hours. PICTURE: SASHA HILL
Storm Isha caused a rough night for passengers crossing from Liverpool to Belfast, with the turbulent conditions delaying arrival for several hours. PICTURE: SASHA HILL

Storm Isha forced the Liverpool ferry to circle the mouth of Belfast Lough for 11 hours, unable to dock. The Road Haulage Association has suggested the Windsor Framework makes such delays more likely, as diverting to Dublin in bad weather causes paperwork problems. There has been some scepticism about this claim as the true cause of all extra paperwork in Dublin is Brexit. However, it is correct that the framework cannot currently accommodate last-minute diversions.

This raises the broader question of how the DUP should position itself as framework frictions continue to arise. If the party returns to Stormont, it will have to walk a tightrope between ‘we told you so’ and ‘we’re now working to fix it’.

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Orange Order Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson
Orange Order Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson Orange Order Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson said "the vast majority of unionists would be happy to go back in if the deal’s right – or close"

Mervyn Gibson, grand secretary of the Orange Order, has said he accepts the Windsor Framework will not change and he could live with a deal that “re-interprets” the green lane through UK internal market legislation.

“I think the vast majority of unionists would be happy to go back in if the deal’s right – or close,” he told the News Letter.

This earned a swift rebuke from TUV leader Jim Allister, who said: “it is dangerously simplistic to think easements on the green lane, even its abolition, restores our place within the UK.”

When it sounds like you are Lundying the head of the Orange Order, is it possible your unionism has become rather simplistic?

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An artist's impression of the proposed Tribeca development in Belfast city centre.
An artist's impression of the proposed Tribeca development in Belfast city centre. An artist's impression of the proposed Tribeca development in Belfast city centre

Officials at Belfast City Council are to examine compulsory purchase of the 12-acre ‘Tribeca’ site. Other parties backed the Green Party proposal due to lack of progress by Castlebrooke Investments, the developer that bought the site in 2016.

Compulsory purchase remains unlikely for multiple reasons, including the length and complexity of the vesting process. But cost alone is not as much of an obstacle as might be imagined. While Tribeca is usually described as a £500 million project, that is the total investment to develop the land. The land itself could be acquired for under £40 million, then resold to other developers in more manageable chunks. As the Greens have mischievously noted, the council has enough cash to do this in reserves.

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Pedro Donald, owner of the Sunflower Public House in Belfast city centre, announced the bar will close for two weeks until after the New Year as part of a self-imposed circuit breaker. Picture by Mal McCann
Pedro Donald, owner of the Sunflower Pub, has said he is leaving Belfast after 40 years. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

Belfast’s dereliction has proved the final straw for well-known publican Pedro Donald. The Sunflower Bar owner is quitting the city after 40 years and moving to Holland. In a forthright interview with this newspaper, he explained another reason for his despair is the Extern heroin user support service in the city centre.

“That’s very important work, but not on the high street. It’s madness,” he said.

Extern only collects used needles. Belfast’s councillors have been discussing legal options to set up a safe injection facility–- another example of important work that should not be attempted in the middle of town. The one good piece of news about Belfast’s dereliction and depopulation is that the city centre is ringed by anonymous industrial areas, generally considered ideal for injection facilities.

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The government is considering legal action against the Republic in response to Dublin’s interstate case over the Troubles amnesty legislation.

A “source close to the legal process” told the Daily Telegraph “piles of evidence have been found of Dublin lobbying for amnesties for terrorists from 1998 at the highest level”.

If so, it will presumably implicate London and Sinn Féin, given how much of that lobbying evidently paid off. As a legal argument, these murky dealings barely rise above ‘two wrongs make a right’ and the European Court could view them as mere background information. It would still transform the politics of legacy to get this all out into the open. The fact is that all protagonists have long wanted a general amnesty and the hypocrisy of some of those pretending otherwise is grotesque.

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Father Ted creator Graham Linehan (Niall Carson/PA)
Father Ted creator Graham Linehan

A group of 23 people, including Father Ted creator Graham Linehan, are taking legal action against the owners of Robinson’s Bar in Belfast for discrimination on the grounds of gender-critical belief. The group had been at a counter-demonstration during a transgender rally. A video later appeared online showing them being ordered out of Robinson’s after a staff member refused to serve them, saying “we are a trans-positive bar’ and “we are not transphobic”.

Legally, this case is somewhat different to the seven-year ‘gay cake’ saga but the main political difference is that many people on both sides of the former argument will be inclined to take different sides in this one. Or so I suspect – it is increasingly difficult to follow these stories without a Venn diagram.