From ‘the end of the United Kingdom’ and embarrassing motions, to kite flying and Waldorff and Statler, Andrew Madden takes a closer look at some of the more unusual things in the Assembly and further afield this week.
Monday saw a ruling in the Court of Appeal that found the Northern Ireland Protocol was lawfully enacted and must take precedence over a centuries-old legislative clause on trade with Britain. The case against the Protocol was brought by a coalition including TUV leader Jim Allister, Baroness Kate Hoey and former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, who didn’t exactly take the ruling well.
Ms Hoey declared the ruling meant the “death of the Good Friday Agreement”, while Mr Habib accused the Tory Government of “presiding over the end of our United Kingdom”. Ben Habib’s tune changed also. At the end of last year, he tweeted: “Remainers keep telling me to ‘own Brexit’. I’m delighted to do so. Boris Johnson’s deal doesn’t actually deliver a proper Brexit but it is much much better than remaining in the EU.” Following Monday’s court ruling, he tweeted: “I’m going to the Supreme Court to prove Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal was worse than remaining in the EU.”
Over in the Assembly, there was a new face in the form of the DUP’s Paul Rankin, who was co-opted into the party’s Lagan Valley seat after Edwin Poots moved to South Belfast. On his first day on the job, Mr Rankin tweeted a picture of Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti western garb with the caption: “Ready for another week.” Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd said “there are enough cowboys in the DUP” and called for the party to reinstate its First Minister.
Meanwhile, over at Queen’s University it emerged they had spent more than £500,000 on nearly 6,000 Amazon purchases during the pandemic, sparking criticism over Amazon’s impact on the environment and on local businesses.
As Professor John Barry, director of the Centre for Sustainability, Equality and Climate Action at QUB, put it: “It’s hypocritical. The university, like a lot of corporate institutions, puts out these statements with rhetorical commitments to sustainable development. Like the Irish football team, it’s great on paper but crap on grass.”
Over at Sky News HQ on Tuesday, presenter Kay Burley appeared to be corrected by two Ukrainian refugees now living in Dublin after she said she hopes they could “start to build a new life in Dublin, safe in the knowledge that the British people are completely behind you.”
It seemed one of the Ukrainian women, Alada, picked up on this statement, replying: “We want to say to the Irish people that we are so grateful for all the kindness and hospitality. Our Irish family, who hosted us, we are surrounded by attention. We can feel family warmth, we really appreciate it. We are thankful from the bottom of our hearts.”
Meanwhile, following fury over moves by the UK Government to change customs rules, which would have excluded Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom’s customs territory, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson called for an explanation in the House of Commons. Liz Truss said she would block the changes, but Mr Wilson questioned how the issue got this far.
“Attempts yesterday to change customs rules to remove Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom’s customs territory would have been a clear breach of the assurances given by the Prime Minister to the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.
“It is clear the Government did not know what it was signing up to and does not know what further damage the Protocol will do to the integrity of the UK, that is why the only solution is to get rid of the Protocol.”
Meanwhile, there were angry scenes in the Assembly when Jim Allister and Jim Wells tabled a motion aimed at preventing people from being able to record their marriage details in Irish. The pair said it was to prevent “squandering” money to facilitate this.
Alliance’s Paula Bradshaw branded the motion an “utter embarrassment”, while the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole referred to the two Jims as Statler and Waldorff – two Muppets characters known for their cantankerous opinions and habit of heckling.
The lack of a functioning Executive became increasingly apparent on Wednesday when it emerged the political crisis could threaten free school meals for children during the holidays. Stormont’s Education Committee was told funding for the meals could not be guaranteed in the absence of an Executive.
SDLP education spokesperson Daniel McCrossan hit out at the situation. “The DUP’s decision to leave the Executive has put many important projects in limbo and left us unable to help people in their hour of need. The idea that children may go hungry as a result doesn’t bear thinking about,” he said.
“The North has some of the highest levels of poverty anywhere on these islands, we have heard how parents are being forced to go without food so their children can eat. For some children their free school meal might be the only one they receive all day and by taking this away during the holidays we would be putting their health and wellbeing at risk.”
Elsewhere, Lord Frost, the UK’s former Brexit negotiator, claimed there should be another Assembly election prior to a planned consent vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol in 2024 to gauge opinion on the matter. Given we are due an election in May – with no guarantee of the return of the Executive following it – and Stormont’s seeming inability to survive without a fresh crisis for more than a few months – I don’t see how more elections could be helpful.
Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney said: “This intervention by the unelected Tory Lord, David Frost, who himself has no electoral mandate either in the north or Britain, is the latest in a long line of attempts by British Tories to interfere in our democratic processes.
“This sort of negative ‘kite flying’ by David Frost simply serves to further expose the total lack of commitment of this Tory government for the democratic basis of our power sharing institutions. His own approach during 2021 as Tory Brexit Minister is clear evidence of that.”
Men in balaclavas, handcuffs and combat boots – you would be forgiven if thinking Line of Duty was back given the scenes at Larne Port on Thursday. P&O Ferries announced it was making hundreds of staff redundant with immediate effect and replacing them with agency staff in a bid to “secure the future of the company”.
So how did the firm – which was in receipt of millions of Covid support from the Government and run by a parent company in the UAE with billions in annual revenue – break the news to its hardworking staff? Via a pre-recorded Zoom video with no warning, of course. And what abut the seafarers on board the ferries on Thursday morning? P&O hired a private security firm, complete with handcuffs and balaclavas, to remove them by force if they refused to leave. Perfectly normal behaviour. If you’re a 90s mob movie, that is. I don’t think he meant the pun, but I agree with UUP leader Doug Beattie, who tweeted: “I can’t believe a company like P&O could sink so low.”
Mid and East Antrim deputy Mayor Matthew Armstrong said: “For staff to be thrown off the boats at Larne and ordered to clear their lockers by security staff wearing balaclavas and carrying tasers and handcuffs illustrates in particularly graphic fashion how shamefully this has been done. Government – including council – now needs to step up to the plate and seek to do what we can to deliver who have been treated so shamefully by their employer.”
Meanwhile, it emerged on Thursday that the Alliance Party sought to hire dozens of low-paid and unpaid foreign workers to help out with its Assembly election campaign. An advert for the positions offered “career development opportunities” for up to 65 people from outside NI. The party were accused of “taking advantage” of low-paid or unpaid overseas workers. Alliance said it “explored the possibility of a paid intern scheme but decided we would not proceed with it.
“A number of volunteers will be helping the party through the election campaign in an unpaid, volunteering capacity.”
Over at St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington, US President Joe Biden issued a warning that the Good Friday Agreement “cannot change”.
Speaking about the relationship between Ireland and the US, he said: “Our nations both are deeply committed to protecting the hard-won gains of peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement has been the foundation of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years. It cannot change.”
Mr Biden might want to say that to Ms Hoey, given her apoplectic response to Monday’s court ruling.
Elsewhere, it emerged on Friday that P&O Ferries employs a PR firm called New Century Media, which is now in a damage control exercise trying to clean up the ferry firm’s image following Thursday’s brutal sackings.
New Century Media – which is run by former UUP MP David Burnside – has previously carried out PR work for allies of Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs. The firm has also donated £200,000 to the Conservative Party.