Human rights working group – Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

For the past couple of months, a group of QUB students, including myself, have been part of a working group on human rights in Northern Ireland. We are focusing particularly on the need for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

The Good Friday Agreement 1998 included the commitment that the upon the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, it would be asked:

“…to consult and to advice on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the ECHR, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experiences. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and – taken together with the ECHR – to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”

This commitment was subsequently reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

As the 19th anniversary of the Agreement recently came and went  against a backdrop of continued political stalemate and inertia, we feel it is time for the Bill of Rights to be prioritised.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which would take into account the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, would ensure legal recognition and protection of the human rights of all our citizens. Human rights has become topical here since the very announcement of the March election, let alone after the smoke cleared and the parties sought to interpret the results delivered by the electorate. As the political situation rumbles on, with legacy cases and Irish key issues, and as the outcome of Brexit remains uncertain, it is time for a Bill of Rights to be realised for the benefit of all.

Bills of rights provide legal recognition and protection of rights to all citizens, but it applies particularly to those within marginalised and vulnerable groups. This is of relevance to Northern Ireland, where human rights issues have been raised in relation to children and women in detention, women accessing reproductive healthcare, equality for the LGBT* community, and the Irish-speaking community. Adopting a Bill of rights would ensure a defense for these communities, and provide legal protection of their rights and redress for violations of same.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is not a new proposition. Since the 1960s, there have been calls from across the political divide for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The common argument is a Bill of Rights would provide for a stable, shared society built on equality and non-discrimination. As part of a constitutional foundation, it would ensure no matter who was in power, human rights would be respected.

It’s been an utter pleasure to work with fellow students on human rights in NI, and I am looking forward to our future work!

We have written a blog post for Rights NI, an online platform for the discussion of human-rights based issues, entitled ‘QUB student working group calls for renewed consideration of NI Bill of Rights‘.

We are currently working on a report which will merge together our individial research and research papers on the subject. It will ultimately conclude that it is time for a Bill of Rights to be realised and implemented.

I am tasked with overseeing the report, and have spent the a couple of evenings after work merging the documents together. It has been fascinating work, and I cannot wait to see where we end up.

From snap press conference, to snap General Election.

And so it came to pass, the Tuesday after Easter weekend, that the British Prime Minister did announce her intention to call an early General Election.

What started out as a sudden announcement of a press conference outside Downing Street quickly descended into rampant speculation. Had Queen died? Is Theresa May resigning? Are we going to war with North Korea? Had Theresa May set off Trident? Is Jeremy Corbyn going to organise an Official Opposition? (Then again, maybe not. I did say it was all mere speculation.) And then, because Northern Ireland is that political thorn in the side of the British government these days (we still do not have an Executive, just so you know) there was some murmurings that perhaps the Prime Minister was about to deliver a statement on the political impasse here, and potentially announce the introduction of direct rule.

I thought the chat about the Prime Minister announcing a resignation on health grounds was unlikely. And, I also considered that despite some questionable decisions since last summer, Theresa May was unlikely to have accidently fired Trident. Firing metaphorical shots about Gibraltar is where it stops with this Prime Minister.

On the speculation about the suspension of Stormont, well, I did not think it to be entirely impossible. The British government is keen for resolution here; it has to present a united front of sorts during the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Moreover, no British government has ever enjoyed dealing with the political crises Northern Ireland throws up. However, I ruled this out because any announcement on Northern Ireland, whether to impose direct rule or call yet another snap election, would surely come from the Secretary of State. James Brokenshire has taken the lead on Northern Ireland since the Executive’s collapse over the RHI controversy in early January. Theresa May has taken a back seat, especially over the recent negotiations and their subsequent collapse and re-formation. James Brokenshire had said he would come to a decision after the Easter weekend, and the political parties do seem to be stuck in stalemate. But I doubted the Prime Minister would summon the UK-wide media to a sudden press conference just for Northern Ireland.

That left speculation over an early General Election. This seemed possible to me, with Labour polling in dire straits, with the Conservatives polling strongly in marked contrast. And after all, Theresa May needs a mandate, and urgently. She found herself anointed as Conservative Party leader and thus Prime Minister last summer; she was never elected to be Prime Minister. Attempting to oversee the most divisive operation in Brexit, she needs to say she has the support of the people – at least, the support of the majority of those who vote. Moreover, she does not wish to be simply the Prime Minister who heralded Brexit. As we have seen with her stance on education, particularly around grammar schools, there is a whole domestic policy agenda she wishes to pursue.

The scene is set. The Prime Minister settles down at her podium, ten minutes before she was expected. Truly, we all should have picked up the theme was ‘early’ from that alone.

And so she duly announced she had spoken with her Cabinet, and all had agreed an early election was the most suitable course. It shall be held on the 8th June, and essentially contested on Brexit.

In her statement, May said her government was trying to deliver on last year’s referendum result by making sure Britain regained control and struck new trade deals.

“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that,” she said, but claimed that other political parties had opposed her efforts.

“The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

Now, Theresa May has been quite clear in the past about wanting the next general election to be in 2020, so she stunned many in Westminster by announcing that it would actually be held this year.  The Prime Minister claimed she had changed her mind “reluctantly”, although the spate of polls putting the Tories as much as 21 points ahead of Labour may have made it easier. You know, 21 points ahead means 21 points ahead. And all this, despite a recent policy blitz by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Evidently, the Prime Minister was tempted to capitalise on the poor ratings in an effort to boost her slim working majority in order to pass both Brexit and domestic legislation. (This, of course, will render her current reliance on the support of the DUP in the Commons null and void…)

The Prime Minister will first have to win a vote by MPs today to hold an early election thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, she cannot call an election directly, but must laydown a motion in the House of Commons. This will require two-thirds of MPs to back it. The Commons vote will follow a 90-minute debate on Wednesday, after Prime Minister’s Questions and any urgent questions or ministerial statements.

That shouldn’t be too hard for her to win given that Labour has welcomed the move, while the SNP and Liberal Democrats would find it hard to vote against it as they would be effectively voting to keep the Tories in power.

Currently, the Commons composition looks like this: the Conservatives have 330 MPs, giving the party its working majority of 16. Labour has 229, the SNP 54, and the Lib Dems 8. The DUP hold 8, Sinn Féin 4, the SDLP 3, and the UUP 2, with one Independent. Plaid Cymru have 3 seats, the Greens 1, and there are four other independents. (Note that UKIP recently lost their only MP, when Douglas Carswell announced his resignation from the party. If he votes with his old party, the Conservatives, he gives the government a majority of 17.) Based on current polling, Labour could lose around 70 seats.

The Conservative leader said the vote would give “certainty and stability” to the country for the Brexit process. As nothing promises stability and certainty quite like an early General Election on the most divisive issue of our times in Brexit.

Moreover, Theresa May might have hurt her public image slightly by calling this election. After vowing for months that she would not seek a snap election, insisting she would see the government through to the next statutory General Election in 2020, she now appears to have gone back on her word for the sake of her party, and party seats. The Independent has rather helpfully complied a list of her statements on the issue of an early election. It is worth highlighting that the most recent comment on the issue came just under a month ago.

This will be the second General Election in as many years, and the third UK-wide vote in two years. But spare a thought for my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. We have had two Assembly elections in less than a year, and now have to return to the polls in a few months. And it gets better: if there is no agreement reached between the main political parties, we face the prospect of a third Assembly election in a few months, too.

Of course, one could argue that the decision of the Cabinet to support the Prime Minister in calling for an early General Election, during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, is evidence of their (dis)regard for the peace process here. One could argue this. But as for myself, I’m digging around for my canvassing shoes. It is going to be a long few weeks.

Ireland, Brexit, and borders.

The rate and extent of the work undertaken by the Irish Government in preparation of the UK invoking Art 50 and triggering Brexit negotiations is staggering. It is also expected: the Irish Government started to research to investigate the impact of Brexit would have in the Republic of Ireland in 2015. The Irish Goverment is aware of the potential impact on its economy and trade, and wishes to be as informed going into negotiations as possible.

Last year, in the immediate aftermath of the EU membership referendum held in the UK, the Irish Cabinet held an emergency meeting. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, warned about the potentially serious implications of Brexit for the Irish economy and the severity of the consequences for the public finances.

The Irish Government then announced it had adopted a Contingency Framework to identify key policy issues to be managed by Government Departments in the event of Brexit.

The Contingency Framework is being coordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach. It is based on preparations, including contributions and responses from Government Departments to identify the key strategic and sectoral issues arising from Brexit. The Irish Government said this framework would ensure the Government and its Departments could focus on key policy areas and issues to be addressed in any negotiations, with a view to minimising potential operational risks likely to arise.

The Taoiseach said:

“The result of the Referendum means that the people of the UK have declared their wish to leave the EU.  It is important to be clear: the UK has not actually left the EU.  Until it formally withdraws from the Union, the UK remains a full Member, with all of its existing rights and obligations.

Today’s result marks the beginning of a new phase of negotiated withdrawal – one that is expected to take place over at least two years and possibly longer.

Businesses can continue to trade as normal and people can continue to travel as normal between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, the Government has adopted an initial Contingency Framework to map out the key issues that will be most important to Ireland in the coming weeks and months. This will be an iterative process as issues emerge and recede in the course of negotiations.”

Identified priority issues included: UK-EU Negotiations, British-Irish Relations, Northern Ireland, North-South Border Impacts, Trade, Investment, Competitiveness and Macro–economic issues, and Research/Innovation funding and Energy.

The Contingency Framework will aim to track and monitor issues over such time as they arise: (i) period immediately following referendum; (ii) pre-negotiation period; and (iii) period of negotiations. The Contingency Framework would enable Ministers, Departments and Agencies in tracking and adapting the detail of contingencies and risk management strategies arising in each of the key strategic, policy and operational areas previously identified. It was expected that more areas and issues would be added as the terms and conditions of the new UK/EU relationship evolve going forward.

The Irish Government noted that:

Detailed negotiation strategies will be prepared on each of the key points for use in negotiations in Brussels, London, Belfast and other capitals as appropriate.  It is important to recall that Ireland – as a committed Member State of the EU – will work within the EU context.  At the same time, Ireland has unique bilateral interests with the UK, including with regard to Northern Ireland, and the Government will also have to work bilaterally in close contact with the UK Government and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

The attention paid by the Irish Government to undertaking Brexit preparations and identifying issues of relevance and importance to the Irish Republic is impressive – especially when compared to the work undertaken by both the Northern Irish Executive and indeed, the British Government. As part of the its Brexit contingency planning, the Irish Government ensured a number of existing structures were in place to be utilised to manage the process on a whole-of-government basis. Such structures include:

  • The Cabinet Committee on EU Affairs and the Senior Officials Group that supports it;
  • The joint UK Permanent Secretaries/ Irish Secretaries General group and its North-South equivalent;
  • A senior official in every Government Department has already been identified to oversee this issue.  All Departments will now supplement this arrangement with a Top Management sub-committee specifically dealing with the implications of this development for their area of work;
  • Department of the Taoiseach chairs an Interdepartmental group of senior officials that has been meeting regularly to look specifically at the bilateral and national interests affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU;
  •  A wider consultative group of stakeholders chaired by Department of the Taoiseach comprising key business representative groups, ICTU and NGOs;
  • The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to use the expertise of the Export Trade Council to advise Government on this issue. The expertise of the Council will be focused on the issues arising from the UK’s disengagement from the EU; and lastly
  • The work of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will become more important as mechanisms to develop the detailed outworking of policy issues arising.

By October 2016, the Irish Government announced its intent to increase its Brexit preparatory work by announcing it would host an All-Island Civic Dialogue to seek broad based views on all-island implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. A broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island attended the Dialogue, in held early November 2016 in Dublin.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was time to “intensify our engagement” after Theresa May announced the UK Government would invoke Art 50 in March 2017. Following the British Prime Minister’s announcement of her self-imposed deadline, the Irish Government met and agreed to intensify preparations; particularly through closer political and official engagement, including with Northern Ireland, the British Government, and the EU institutions and fellow Member States, and through increased dialogue with civic society. After this meeting, the Taoiseach reaffirmed the Irish Government’s priorities were the economy and trade, the peace process and Northern Ireland, and the EU Common Travel Area. He said:

“Now that we have clarity from Prime Minister May regarding the timetable, we will intensify our engagement and preparation for the negotiations. Ireland faces unique challenges from Brexit, not least given the all-island issues that arise.
I will continue to engage with Northern Ireland party leaders on the range of issues involved and I welcome the commitment of the Executive parties to working through the issues in the context of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC). The next NSMC Summit, on 18 November in Armagh, will be hugely significant, when we will have completed our Brexit audit of North/South programmes and will consider how we can best protect the peace process and North-South interests in upcoming negotiations…”

However, working with the Northern Ireland Executive and political party leaders has proven to be quite the bumpy ride. For example, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster said there was “no need” for the All-Ireland Civic Dialogue. She told an event at the Conservative Party conference that such a summit would lead to “grandstanding”. In contrast, the DUP’s partner party in the Executive, Sinn Féin, supported the idea. (Sinn Féin would attend the Dialogue, along with the SDLP and Alliance. The DUP and UUP did not attend.)

Moreover, the DUP consistently argued that existing cross-border bodies could be used to work out the implications of Brexit on the island of Ireland, and there was no need to established new and specific bodies or working groups. However, Sinn Féin have spoken of the need to work closely with the Irish Government outside of current cross-border bodies, evidence if needed of the disunity within the Executive in relation to Brexit.

In addition, attempting to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, most particularly on the issue of the border, is not aided when the British Government seemingly has no clue or consistent stance. In June 2016, a few days before the EU referendum was held, the then Home Secretary Theresa May said it was “inconceivable” that there would not be any changes on border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland in the event of a Leave vote. Whilst acknowledging the British-Irish Common Travel Area pre-dated the EU, she suggested that if the UK withdrew from the EU, this result in tariffs which would need some form of controls.

Fast forward to July, and now Prime Minister Theresa May revised her position. During a visit to Northern Ireland, she said whilst a border would happen, “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past”. If that doen’t cause headaches enough, the division between the First and deputy First Minister will. Martin McGuinness stressed there should not be a hard, visibile border and said that the Prime Minister needs to consider the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland:

“On the issue of Brexit, I speak for the people of the north and the people of the north who are unionists, nationalists and republicans made it clear that they see their future in Europe.”

However, Mrs Foster said politicians had to work for everyone in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland was part of the UK, so had to work within the UK plan.

“We all know that there was an election in May of this year and the Democratic Unionist Party, as a result of that, has 38 members [of the assembly] and he [Mr McGuinness and Sinn Féin] has 28 members, so I think that jointly we speak for the people of Northern Ireland together…

“We should be looking to achieve what is best for all the people of Northern Ireland and not try to make political point scoring out of what has occurred.”

To be fair to the Executive, it has at least been firm and consistent in its approach, for all that it contains two opposing stances. The British Government’s approach keeps twisting and turning.

Theresa May was accused of reversing her position on post-Brexit border controls in September 2016. After her comments in July 2016 as previously outlined, in her first interview as Prime Minister with a journalist from Northern Ireland she said she wanted to see continued free movement. Mrs May said she agreed with the Irish government and Northern Ireland Executive about ensuring there was not a “return to the borders of the past”. On tat basis, she would work “closely together” with them to ensure free movement across the border. She denied that she had changed her view, and when questioned on how the border would be policed or controlled after Brexit, said:

“We are discussing with the Irish government at the moment how we can develop these ideas in ways that are going to ensure that we deliver on the intention of all parties.”

Evidently these discussions and also engagements over more general issues are successful (see: sarcasm) because the Irish Government criticised the British Government over its Brexit strategy in late 2016. As frustrations grew over the lack of clarity and certainty in the British intentions, and the British Government’s refusal to outline objections, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan said the “mixed messaging was a matter of concern” given that six months had passed since the referendum. He added:

“I want to see a plan. After six months we should be moving now from slogans towards having a clarified plan. I don’t see evidence of that, and I find that regrettable.”

Such exasperation is understandable. As the British Government has not outlined its objectives, the Irish Government – and indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive – is none the wiser about whether the British Government intends to lobby for the UK to remain in the Single Market, or seek an alternative arrangement. In the absence of any replacement agreement, the Republic would be required to impose a tariff on goods entering from the North and the rest of the UK, with Irish goods seeing a tariff imposed when they enter the North and the rest of the UK.In addition, the lack of clarity in relation to the British objectives means the implications for the common travel area between Ireland and the UK, which allows an open and invisible border between North and South, are also uncertain. Given the extensive investigative and preparatory work undertaken by the Irish Government compared to the British Government, little wonder then Mr Flanagan and the rest of the Irish Cabinet are frustrated, and wary of the forthcoming negotiations.

If the Irish Government did not have enough to contend with, given the British Government’s habit of reversing its position and not clarifying its objective, it now has a policial storm in the North to monitor.

As the RHI scandal runs on, it should be remembered that the designated date for invoking Art 50 and triggering Brexit draws closer. The risk of an early Assembly election could not have been more ill-timed. Should Sinn Féin decide to walk out of the Assembly, or the DUP decide to show their hand and call an election, we will have a prolonged period where Northern Ireland lacks an administrative government. Were this to occur close to the March deadline, control could be transferred back to Westminster, and a British Government which boasts a pro-Leave majority.

Apparently this is a growing concern within the Irish Government, which fears the political chaos in Northern Ireland and potential transfer of control back to London might result in a ‘hard’ Brexit. The Irish Government is concerned that if there is no Stormont representation, then the Republic’s hand in the negotiations would be weakened. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic do not want a hard border or restrictions on the Common Travel Area. Both wish to see the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process recognised and respected. The Irish Government would certainly prefer to partner with the Northern Ireland Executive, not the British Government on these issues.

Essentially, the Irish Government is that student who has their coursework completed and submitted far in advance of the deadline. The Northern Ireland Executive is trying, but is currently in the grip of a writing crisis. And the British Government? It is the student who swears they have their coursework completed, but actually waits until the night before, staring at a blank Word document in rising panic.

We can only wait and see what happens during the negotiations, but I hope the British Government does not reverse its position the border again. It is only too clear that the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive must work together to secure their shared objectives and advance their interests.

Northern Ireland, Brexit, Consent, and the need for Special Status.

Tick tock, tick tock. The countdown to the triggering of Art 50 is slowly but surely winding down. We have merely two months until the UK Prime Minister’s self-imposed deadline of March 2017. I must confess I feel rather nauseous at the prospect.

As a young person living in Northern Ireland, who identifies as Irish and European, I dread the inevitable, prolonged negotiations. The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of same worries me, and I am less than impressed or reassured with the response of the British government towards Northern Ireland. Whilst we have genuine fears about the potential of an imposed border between the North and South, we are treated to something akin to a shoulder shrug and the ever-present comment of faux comfort: “we do not want a return to the borders of the past”. In Northern Ireland, this comment from the British government is on a par with the now infamous “Brexit means Brexit” (i.e. mockery and parody).

I had been involved in canvassing during the EU referendum in Belfast. I spoke to many people as they went about their day, and had noticed the general view was Northern Ireland would suffer a more negative impact from a potential withdrawal from the EU than the rest of the UK. True, there were those who believed withdrawing from the EU would save the UK money, and there were those who believed that the EU “interfered” in the UK. I remember explaining the role the EU played during The Troubles when it was still called the EC, providing funding and support for investment, peace projects, and cross-community work. The EU’s financial assistance continued to this day, I explained. Did they know our buses and trains benefited from EU funding? No, came the reply.

What was also noticeable was there were those who said to me, “what does it matter how we vote here? Everyone knows England will take us out”. This was a statement ringing with truth. The size of the potential electorate in England outmatched Northern Ireland. The majority of us might desire one outcome, but our vote would be a drop in the ocean compared to the overall vote from England. So whilst I felt strongly confident that both Northern Ireland and Scotland would vote remain, I was always nervous about the results in Wales and England. When the dust cleared and the result became known, I realised I had been right: 56% voted Remain in Northern Ireland, but it was smothered in the larger-than-expected Leave mandate from England and Wales.

I had watched throughout the campaign as the polls narrowed, but I was conscious of not pinning my hopes to the polls, given their performance in the 2015 General Election. Watching the polls narrow and spike, I asked myself how we had ended up in this mess, why David Cameron had gambled on the pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in the Conservative manifesto n 2015, and how could this ever provide a fair playing field, given how all regions in the UK had different views, relationships and benefits when it came to the EU.

I voted on the 23rd June 2016, and came home with a sudden, sinking feeling. I did not feel optimistic about the results. It was foreshadowing in motion. I stayed up all night, and throughout the morning of the 24th June. I can recall watching with increasing nervousness the decisions across the UK flashing across my television screen, and soon realised that the UK had overall decided to leave. It was a surreal feeling. I felt shocked and disappointed at the decision; my friends felt the same way. My mobile screen was ablaze with messages and texts from friends wondering what on earth would happen to us in Northern Ireland. I suppose we felt uncertain: uncertain of the future, uncertain of Northern Ireland’s status and future, and simply uncertain in ourselves as a strand of our identity had essentially been voted away. I personally felt frustrated at the state of affairs which had been brought about to appease Eurosceptics, without any consideration for the devolved regions, their own history and political landscape. I was frustrated too that Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to remain, but would have to leave regardless. Watching as the main broadcasters- ITV, the BBC and Sky News – announced the projected Leave result one by one in a parody of a domino effect, I realised I was watching an historic moment. And I felt sick to my core.

My Remain leaflets are still in my bedroom. I kept them, along with the leaflets posted fromm England and the official Leave campaigners. Sometimes I look at them, with their comments of “The UK gives £350m a year to the EU. Let’s fund our NHS instead”. I look at them, and I wonder whether faux facts and inaccurate statements are what is needed to win in politics.

EU referendum campaign

The EU referendum campaign in Northern Ireland was limited, and had commenced at a late stage. Whilst the South of Ireland had started drafting reports to examine the potential ramifications of a UK withdrawal in late 2015, Northern Ireland did not really seem to become engaged with the campaign until the spring of 2016. I think the politicians here were preoccupied with the Assembly election in May 2016; party leaders were unhappy at the decision of David Cameron to hold the EU referendum so close to the Assembly election. When the debate did get under way, it became a discussion along the traditional political lines of Unionism and Nationalism. Unionists generally favoured to leave, and Nationalists favoured to Remain. Most political parties supported the Remain campaign, from the SDLP and Sinn Féin to Alliance and the Green Party. The anti-austerity, socialist People Before Profit were the main advocates of ‘Lexit’.  The Ulster Unionists did not really seem clear on their position: the party stated it advocated Remain, but party MPs urged their supporters to vote Leave. The DUP, the largest party, argued for Leave, espousing the same lines from the British Leave campaigners regarding ‘taking back control of the UK’s future’. They were joined in the Leave camp by the TUV, the more hardline Unionist party led by ex-DUP member and former MEP, Jim Allister.

The SDLP were probably the most engaged party during the campaign, officially registering with the Electoral Commission, with canvassing and leaflet drops, and a strong social media presence. (It was with the SDLP that I took part in canvassing around Belfast, it was with the SDLP that I outlined the benefits of EU membership for NI and the need for NI to adopt an internationalist stance, and it was the SDLP I would soon come to officially call ‘my party’ when I joined in the summer after years of quietly supporting the party.)

The tone was perhaps not as divisive as it was across the water, but there was still sniping between the DUP, the main voice for Leave, and the rest of the parties. The campaign was simply incorporated into the Assembly election campaign, in that canvassing door-to-door included the candidate explaining their stance on the referendum. The main issue was the border, and there was a very real concern that it would be implemented if the UK voted to leave, triggering stark reminders of the past. The impact on trade, agriculture and business was discussed, but it was the SDLP who provided statistical evidence of the negative impact to the economy.

The campaign in Northern Ireland may have arrived late, but at least it arrived. Northern Ireland barely featured in the main, UK-wide coverage of the EU referendum, and the potential impact of Leave outcome. The referendum in my opinion had the effect of reinforcing the belief of many NI citizens that wesimply do not feature in UK-wide matters. The referendum coverage, via both the press and the televised media, focused on arguments pertaining mainly to England, and then sometimes Scotland. British politicians who were predominantly involved in campaigning and media coverage tended to be English. The sole UK Parliamentary report focusing on the consequences of withdrawal for NI was only finalised and published in late May, mere weeks before we would go to the polls. Our then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, actively and openly campaigned for Leave, knowing full well the majority in Northern Ireland favoured Remain. Neither Ms Villiers, nor any of her fellow Leave campaigners could answer clearly whether border controls would be implemented in the island of Ireland. It was evident that no Leave campaigner had truly considered the issue. This very valid concern was simply dismissed, even as Ministers in the Republic commented on the possibility of same. The whole affair can be summarised in one point: the entire campaign centred around ‘Britain’s membership’ of the EU, and how ‘Britain’ would vote. The term ‘Britain’ both legally and politically referes to Scotland, England and Wales. Northern Ireland is only included in the UK. No one bothered to include Northern Ireland in the discourse and debate then. No one outside Northern Ireland bothers to do so now, not whilst reporters, politicians etc refer to ‘Britain’s exit’ and ‘Brexit’.

The fact that Theresa May has not appointed the Secretaries of State for all the devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – as permanent members of her Brexit War Cabinet, informing them they will sit in when relevant, worries me.

Post-EU referendum

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, demanded that a border poll be held. This however was swiftly rejected by the then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. Again, it felt as though NI could not have a say in its constitutional status, or future, without the approval of the British government. The GFA 1998 and Northern Ireland Act 1998 state a border poll would be permitted to be held by the British government if it was the will of the citizens. This however was not acknowledged by the British government last summer, and I doubt if it will be in the years to come.

The DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, was scathing of Mr McGuinness’ request for a border poll. She has said she would support a border poll, only so that it could put to rest “once and for all” Irish Nationalists’ quest for reunification. She believes a poll would result in a defeat for the reunification case.

The referendum has triggered new discourse on the future of Northern Ireland, and I have noticed more people discussing border polls and the potential case for reunification with the South. There is a feeling the British government in London does not understand or acknowledge the innate and natural differences in the states which comprise the UK. When Theresa May became Prime Minister, she stood outside Downing Street and spoke of the “precious, precious bond” of the Union. She later dismissed “divisive Nationalists” and their reaction to the Brexit vote at the Conservative Party Conference. This type of attitude, this type of rhetoric is evidence of the lack of understanding for the devolved regions and their genuine concerns and fears over Brexit. In my opinion, it serves only to alienate.

Impact of Brexit outcome

Ever since the vote, Brexit has dominated the discourse here. Nearly every week during plenary in the Assembly, Brexit is mentioned in some form. From discussing the impact it will have on funding for projects and schemes, particularly the impact on cross-community work funded by the EU peace fund, to implications for infrastructure, the economy, education and travel, MLAs are constantly asking questions and demanding answers and clarity. The Executive (comprised of the DUP and Sinn Féin) came under scrutiny last year when it was revealed that a report which assessed the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland was not published during the referendum campaign. It has been subjected to criticism for its lack of a unified position, which is complicated given the Executive is actually divided on the issue of Brexit, as the two parties promoted contrasting outcomes. Moreover, the Executive faced derision when it became apparent the only discourse it has engaged in with the Prime Minister was a short letter asking her to take note of the unique position of Northern Ireland. It has also been accused by the Opposition (UUP, SDLP and Alliance) that it has failed to act since the decision, given the work and consultations being carried out in Scotland and Wales in comparison. I think this brings the issue of how to clarify Northern Ireland’s position, its interests and issues relevant to negotiations, when the Executive is divided on the subject.

Special Status

Last year, the SDLP brought forward a motion in the Assembly about having a special status for Northern Ireland recognised by the EU given its history and Remain vote. The motion in full readThat this Assembly notes the current public concern arising from the European Union referendum vote; endorses the proposal of the Irish Government and others that there should be legal recognition of the unique status of Northern Ireland and the circumstances on the island as part of the arrangements to leave the European Union; believes that this is one mechanism that can safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, including future access to European Union funding opportunities; and calls on the British Government to fully endorse, and to negotiate for, this outcome in discussions on leaving the European Union.’ 

SDLP Party leader Colum Eastwood moved the motion, and argued:

The British Treasury, which is beginning to implement Brexit, has told us that a hard Brexit will cost the British Exchequer between £38 billion and £66 billion a year. What will that mean for Barnett consequentials and the Executive’s already tightened and straitened financial opportunities? What will that mean for us when it happens? People need to understand that, no matter how many glasses of champagne are poured, the British Tory party has no interest and does not care one jot for people in Northern Ireland. I am surprised that people have not learnt that lesson.

Since this happened, we have made it clear that our job here is to stand with the people who voted to remain in the European Union. Our job here is to protect their interests, not the interests of people anywhere else, not the interests of people on a different island or in a different jurisdiction. Our job is to protect people here. That is why we have to ensure that we maintain the four freedoms on the island of Ireland. That is why we have to ensure that our people have the right to move freely around this island and around the European Union. That is why we have to ensure that our businesses can trade freely without tariffs, borders or any impediments to business and growth around this island and the European Union.

That is why we clearly believe that, whilst the new mantra of the British Government is “We will not return to the borders of the past” — I think that that is the line that they keep trotting out — we need to ensure that we explain to people what that actually means. People who argued for Brexit need to be more honest about what that means. If we are not to have a border like we had in the past and if we are not going to control our border at Bridgend, Newry or anywhere across this island, where will we control it? My strong belief is that the only practical place and the best place to control the border into Britain is at Stansted Airport, Heathrow Airport or any port that you want to name, because it will not be possible to do it here.

SDLP Finance Spokesperson, Claire Hanna argued:

The Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Ireland supremacy in deciding our constitutional future. It recognised the dual identity — that people here can be British or Irish or both, as they so choose — and it gave equal status to those identities. Those who shout and roar about supporting this referendum can maybe update their response to the Good Friday Agreement, given that they believe that 52% is an overwhelming majority in this case. Under that interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement and recognising the 56% vote, only Northern Ireland can determine its constitutional status, and it is clear that a clear majority voted to remain.

The SDLP has always stood by the principle of consent, even when it supported a constitutional status that was not of our choosing or our liking. This is not just a technical issue. Please do not underestimate the importance, to nationalism in particular, of unimpeded access to the rest of this island and of the European Union, which was so pivotal in allowing sovereign Ireland and sovereign UK to work together as equals and as partners, underpinned a supernational link between the contracting parties to the agreement and provided validation to Northern nationalists that the two Governments were cooperating with equal status.

The motion was defeated by a single vote, with 46 MLAs supporting it and 47 against. All MLAs who are designated as Nationlist supported it, whilst all Unionist designated MLAs opposed it. The two PBP MLAs voted in both lobbies to have their votes negated. The two Green MLAs voted in favour, as did the Alliance contingent.

SDLP stance

The party had always made clear after the referendum result that it would use any legal, parliamentary and diplomatic options available had to try to protect the will and mandate of the people here. Since the referendum, the SDLP has used contacts in the Party of European Socialists, its sister parties across Europe, to try to make sure that the issues of Northern Ireland are realised and considered in Europe. The SDLP’s stance is that the future which was chosen by the English people was not that chosen by NI citizens. The First Minister in Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister in London must understand and respect this. Brexit will be considered with a determination to defend the Irish national interest, and to strongly advocate Northern Irish interests and needs. The NI Assembly must not consent to Brexit, given its uncertainty for NI and potential negative impact on the peace process and stability of the state. The Assembly should emulate its counterpart in Scotland, and resist any imposition of Brexit by the British government. The party argues for an Irish solution to the European problem. This Assembly and the Executive should now work with the Irish and British Governments to ensure that unique legal status is attained for Northern Ireland in the forthcoming negotiations. This status would ensure that any negative impact of a hard-Brexit would be minimised here.  It would mean that we would retain the four freedoms, including trade and movement, across the island. The party aims to ensure that any new border is around the island of Ireland, and not across it.  If Theresa May argues ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we argue that ‘consent means consent, and remain means remain’.

Issue of Consent

On that basis, the SDLP joined a cross-party legal challenge to Brexit in August 2016, submitting the principle of consent provided by the Good Friday Agreement was breached by the EU referendum. The legal challenge also argued that an equality impact assessment needed to be carried out regarding the impact of Brexit, and that the Assembly should be consulted and hold a vote on whether to invoke Art 50.

The Good Friday Agreement was a peace agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland pertaining to the governance of Northern Ireland. The negotiations dealt with issues that had caused conflict, most notably the constitutional status of the north. On the constitutional question of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or become part of an united Ireland, it was agreed there would be no change without the consent of the majority of citizens. This was the ‘principle of consent’. This is laid down per para (1)(ii) of the Agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, and the only grounds upon which it might be changed: parties agreed to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status’. This was provided as an ongoing commitment from both the British and Irish governments. Thus the legal challenge resides on the belief that the principle of consent might have been violated: the British government arguably did not uphold its commitment when holding the EU referendum. The majority of NI citizens did not wish to leave the EU, thus they did not consent to the change in constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The legal challenge was dismissed in the Belfast High Court, but the parties submitted their arguments before the UK Supreme Court in December 2016.

Ongoing quest for Special Status

In October 2016, as SDLP MPs questioned the UK Prime Minister about the impact of Brexit to Northern Ireland, Colum Eastwood went to Westminster to advocate for special status. He said:

“At Prime Minister’s questions today, we were once again subjected to Theresa May’s meaningless mantras on withdrawal from the European Union. She once again said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and suggested there would be ‘no return to the borders of the past’ in Ireland. Unfortunately, she once again declined to detail what the border of the future will look like.

The British Prime Minister also said that Northern Ireland’s future will be decided peacefully and by consent. She may not have noticed but the people of Northern Ireland have not and will not consent to being forced out of the European Union…

Despite the rose tinted glasses the British Government, and their cheerleaders in the DUP, are wearing, it is communities in Northern Ireland that will be worst affected by withdrawal from Europe.”

In November 2016, to mark 150 days since the referendum, the SDLP published 150 questions for the Executive to answer. The questions ranged from economic and business questions on NI’s place in the single market, social questions on the effects on community and voluntary sectors, education questions on the status and impact on universities, and questions around the security and future faced by the farming community.

As the New Year arrived, Mr Eastwood vowed the SDLP would continue to lead the campaign for Special Status:

“As we collectively look ahead, Brexit remains the most significant threat hanging over this island. The inertia and uncertainty which has characterised the British Government’s and the Executive’s response to the referendum result has crippled confidence. For too long we have all been asked to tag along with meaningless mantras and the singular tactic of ‘wait and see’.

The achievement of special status for Northern Ireland does not require waiting for the conclusion of the overall British negotiation. Working with European partners and in particular with the Irish Government, a deal can be reached to bring certainty and security to this island even if it remains absent in Britain.”

Tick, tock. March 2017 is comng upon us. And my worry about the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland increases. I worry about any decline in choice for all citizens, given that withdrawing from the EU and the potential of a ‘hard’ Brexit would result in leaving the single market. This would mean in the end of free movement of people and services.The prospect of losing access to the EU Charter of Rights and Freedoms is worrying. The ECHR as enshrined in the HRA 1998 provides rights protection, but the EU Charter gives wider rights recognition and protection. Equally worrying is that, once outside of the EU, only the HRA 1998 will be present, but the Conservative government is adamant it will be repealed. Human rights protection and equality recognition is essential in NI, given our history of conflict, discrimination and sectarianism. We cannot afford to lose rights protection measures.

Many pro-Leave politicans have waxed lyrical about the opportunities Brexit presents the UK.  Call my cynical, call me pessimistic, but I cannot help but focus on the uncertainity, the loss of EU citizenship, the potential border imposition, of the impact on the NI economy, agri-food industry and farming communities.

And when we know the British government barely has any idea of what deal it hopes to acquire for the UK outside the EU, I am not exactly filled with confidence for the next two years.

Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service – a service no more?

A plea has been made to Belfast City Council to continue funding an advice service that is believed to have helped thousands of the most vulnerable citizens retain their benefits in a time of welfare reform and austerity.

The Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service (BCTS) is set to close its doors, after its funding came to an end on 31st December 2016. Eight members of staff will lose their jobs when the organisation is forced to shut, including five full-time tribunal representatives and two tribunal assistants.

BCTS represents clients who wish to appeal Social Security Agency (SSA) decisions on benefits, including Employment Support Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independent Payment and Universal Credit. It enables clients to challenge decisions, assisting them through the process and representing them in both an Appeal and Tribunal setting.

BCTS was established in anticipation of welfare reform, aiming to address the impact cuts would have on citizens in receipt of benefits, including Disability Living Allowance and Employment Support Allowance. It was also hoped that the service would provide assistance those affected by the introduction of Personal Independence Payments, which will replace Disability Living Allowance by 2020.

The service has been funded by Belfast City Council, with support from the former Department of Social Development (now the Department for Communities), since June 2013. However, despite the demand and need for the service, funding was only agreed for two years, up until the end of 2016.

Belfast City Council is a major funder of advice providers across Belfast, which provide free, confidential and independent advice on a range of issues including benefits, consumer, debt, employment and housing issues.

In recent years, the centres supported by the Council (which are members of either Citizens Advice or Advice NI) have experienced a significant increase in the number of people accessing their services. This trend is likely to continue with the introduction of Welfare Reform. Consequently, the need for tribunal representation has steadily increased as the number of claimants being disallowed benefit has grown, and cases have become more complex.

Realising the need for a tribunal service in light of incoming changes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland, the Council agreed to fund the BCTS for two years. It was managed and delivered by the Belfast Advice Group, a new consortium of advice providers from across Belfast.

The service provides vital support and assistance to clients appealing decisions by the Social Security Agency and can be accessed by anyone living in the city through any of the 21 council-funded advice programmes.

But now this vital support and assistance might come to an end, with no proposed alternative set to replace it. This is extremely worrying.

BCTS helped vulnerable citizens who have been refused welfare to appeal this decision. It supports ill, disabled, and disadvantaged citizens who otherwise would have no support or financial assistance. As welfare reform looms, this funding will be relied upon more than ever. Funding is ending just when the most vulnerable citizens are about to be affected by the impact of welfare reform. Citizens with mental ill-health, or with complex medical needs, will therefore have to navigate the complex process without specialist advice and guidance. This seems unfair, and the lack of foresight in considering an alternative for BCTS in advance of the funding deadline even more so.

Gerry Tubritt, who chairs the Belfast Advice Group, said the body had provided representation at 3,203 appeals, helping people secure benefit entitlement totalling £9.6m.

“The funding that Belfast City Council has provided for this service has really benefited Belfast citizens, and we are very grateful that the council took the initiative to help meet this need…

“Many of those accessing the service are vulnerable, with a range of health problems, as well as physical, mental and learning disabilities.

“The service we provide helps make this (appeals) a much less stressful experience, and ensures that where possible the evidence to demonstrate that people remain entitled to benefit is gathered and presented to those making decisions.”

Mr Tubritt also warned that the number of appeal hearings was set to dramatically increase between now and 2020. The Appeals Service, which administers the process, estimated there would be more than 32,000 such cases in 2017/18, and around 41,000 the following year, as the process of reassessing the 125,000 Disability Living Allowance claimants across Northern Ireland gets underway. To put that figure into some context: in some parts of Belfast, one in five people receives Disability Living Allowance.

SDLP MLA for North Belfast, Nichola Mallon, has called on the Communities Minister Paul Givan and Belfast City Council to urgently reinstate funding for the service.

Ms Mallon said:

“From 31st December, funding to provide specialist Appeal Tribunal support and advice across Belfast is to be cut completely. Over the course of the last three years, this vital service has protected over £9m for vulnerable people across this city that would otherwise have been withdrawn and have left many unable to provide for their families through no fault of their own.

“As a result of the cruellest aspects of welfare reform, which the SDLP stood steadfastly against at the Assembly and Westminster, the Communities Minister has revealed to me that appeals are expected to increase from 12,000 in 2017 to 41,000 in 2019. Despite that huge increase in appeals, the Communities Minister and Belfast City Council have still decided to completely cut funding and close the doors of the vital Belfast Tribunal Service.

“The net result is that many vulnerable people suffering physical and mental ill health will be left to navigate a daunting and complex appeals process without specialist support. That is unacceptable.

“All of this is at a time when taxpayer’s money is being used to fund the £490m RHI black hole and the £13.1m Social Investment Fund overspend. Public money is being used to plaster over the incompetence of this Executive and the most vulnerable are the ones bearing the brunt of it.

“Before Christmas I urgently wrote to the Communities Minister asking him to outline what support he will make available to keep this vital specialist support service going. I, along with the thousands who need this service, await his reply.”

The funding of the service was discussed at the meeting of Belfast City Council’s People and Communities Committee earlier in December 2016. Councillors had agreed then that a letter would be sent to the Department for Communities seeking a meeting with the Minister, which would attended by a cross-party delegation from the Committee.

The matter is likely to be discussed at the next full meeting of the council on 7th January 2017.

People Before Profit councillor Matt Collins proposed a motion calling for the Council to recognise “the important role the service plays in helping people across this city and understand that faced with the coming changes surrounding welfare reform, this service is needed now more than ever“. Cllr Collins’ motion also urges the local authority to continue funding the service until other sources of money can be secured. This motion is expected to be referred to the Council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

We can only hope that the Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, will agree to meet with the cross-party delegation soon, and that the Council considers this an urgent matter, and begins to consider alternative funding and plans for such a vital and needed service.

Autumn Statement Revisited.

And so it came to pass, that after a political rollercoaster of a summer, some order was restored to the UK political scene as Chancellor Philip Hammond delivered the Autumn Statement of 2016. Except that it was not really a case of ‘was you were’, seeing that whilst it was the first Autumn Statement delivered by Mr Hammond, it was also his last.

Yes, Mr Hamond promised to abolish the Autumn Statement, with Budgets now set to happen in the autumn from next year, along with a new “Spring Statement” from 2018. Basically, it’s a switch around: Spring Budgets will now take place in Autumn, and Autumn Statements will take place in Spring. It’s a literal case of the changing of the seasons. (As recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan did not sing, ‘The future for me is already a thing of the past/You were my first Autumn Statement, and will be my last’.)

Musical references aside, it has nearly been one week since the Autumn Statement 2016. It ws rather a mixed bag, with a mixed reception to boot. Depending on who you ask – or what newspaper you read – it was either an unmitigated triumph, proving the doomsayers wrong as the Chancellor sought to bring about a glorous new dawn via a wave of celebrated spending. Or it was confirmation that the UK must face up to being stradled with ever-increasing debt fuelled by a borrowing bill racked up by reckless pro-Leavers. As for Mr Hammond, he was as resignedly calm as ever, telling BBC Breakfast: “I don’t think it was gloomy at all.”

Poor old Mr Hammond. He had so wanted to keep the whole thing low-key. I suspect that in that he succeeded, as very little of what he announced was probably retained by any one other than economists. I doubt whether many will be able to recall it at the end of the year, let alone next year.

But he found himself between the proverbial rock and hard place. He was caught between balancing the competing pressures of Prme Ministerial demands for more spending against Treasury demands for prudence. Not of course to forget those warnings from the Leave camp against pessimism for a UK outside the EU against the economic reality of the uncertainty for the future. I fear that uncertainty was the overall winner of the bout.

It was noticable that there were not many leaked proposals for this Autumn Statement. Mr Hammond’s predecessor had a habit of trailing the positive news from his Statement days in advance to build optimism and confidence. In a marked change, Mr Hammond only hinted at helping the JAMS (just about managing families) and promised a spending package aimed at improving infrastructure. He might have availed of his predecessor’s habit, and generated soeme positive coverage going into the day. Instead, the gloomy predictions of the cost of Brexit ended up being the headline news.

You see, after all the months of bitter bickering over what the true cost of Brexit, and what this might entail,  last week the estimation of withdrawing from the EU was given at a bitter £58.7billion. That was the predicted rise in borrowing over the next four years which the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) directly attributes to the EU referendum outcome, and the uncertainty arising from same, with the UK economy 2.4% smaller than expected. Oh, and it gets better, as all of the above was based on the hope that the UK leaves the EU as planned by 2019.’As planned’ being the key words there.

The Brexit bill is around half of the total £122 billion extra in borrowing, on top of what was forecast back in one George Osborne’s last budget in March. Essentially, we can say goodbye to the long-planned and hoped for Budget surplus, as promised by Mr Osborne.

Speaking of borrowing: Mr Hammond declared he will also borrow another £26 billion to fund investment in housing, transport, digital technology and science research in the latest attempt to address the startling low productivity in the UK.

Appearing on ITV, BBC, Sky News and Radio 4, Hammond kept emphasising that the OBR is “independent” from British Government. On the Today programme he commented that “We know very well that economic forecasting is not a precise science”. On BBC Breakfast, he pointed out that despite some saying the OBR forecast was “gloomy”, it still predicts an extra 500,000 jobs by 2020. (So that’s alright then).

And bless the man, he did also stress that this was not all about Brexit. He told the BBC:

“Of course there is uncertainty around the process of our exit from the European Union but there is also uncertainty about what is going to happen in the United States when Donald Trump assumes the presidency. There is uncertainty about the Chinese economy.”

Basically, uncertainity is in vogue this season, and we are not the only ones struggling to find clarity.

Mr Hammond elaborated:

“The message is we have got a strong economy, we need to invest to build on that strong foundation, we need to deal with some of the long-term challenges we have in this country including our long-term productivity gap, challenges in our housing market, challenges in our distribution of economic growth across the county.

“And yes, we do need to just heed the warnings that we’re getting from organisations like the OBR and keep a little bit of fire power in our locker just in case it is needed over the next few years.”

He did try so very hard to argue that Brexit is not the be all and end all for the UK economy at this moment in time. Yet this argument was futile. Brexit means Brexit, yes. But we are not closer to understanding what this means. Uncertainty breeds. And no matter how many positive points Mr Hammond sought to pull out of his hat last week, the tension and concern surrounding Brexit taints all.

Autumn Statement 2016 Summary

Household incomes

  • A so-called ‘Taper rate’ on universal credit cut from 65% to 63%,  saving low-paid workers 2p for every extra pound they earn;
  • Tax-free personal allowance to rise to £12,500 by the end of this Parliamentary mandate;
  • Increase in the higher rate income tax threshold to £50,000 by the next election; and
  • National living wage increased by 30p to £7.50 an hour next year.

Cost of living

  • Freeze in the 2p a litre rise in fuel duty;
  • 15 hours a week of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds to be doubled;
  • Insurance premium tax will rise from 10 per cent to 12% next year;
  • Crackdown on whiplash claims to reduce insurance premiums by £40 on average a year; and
  • A new NS&I savings bond with a rate of 2.2 per cent on deposits up to £3,000 held for three years.

Housing

  • A £2.3 billion housing infrastructure fund for up to 100,000 new homes in high demand areas and £1.4 billion to build 40,000 additional affordable home.

Infrastructure

  • New national productivity investment fund of £23 billion over five years for innovation and infrastructure;
  • More than £1 billion for digital infrastructure plus 100% business rates relief on new fibre infrastructure;
  • £1.3 billion investment in roads and to reduce traffic pinch points; and
  • £450 million on digital signalling on the railways.

Miscellaneous

  • Employee and employer National Insurance thresholds to be equalised at £157 per week from April 2017;
  • Funding for 2,500 more prison officers;
  • £390 million to build on our competitive advantage in low emission vehicles, plus a 100% first year capital allowance for installing charging points for electric cars;
  • Extra £400m for venture capital funds through the British Business Bank, unlocking £1 billion of new finance for growing firms;
  • Ban on pension cold-calling and pension schemes to trick people out of their life savings;
  • Investment in research and development rising to an extra £2 billion a year by 2020-21;
  • No plans for further welfare savings in this Parliamentary mandate;
  • Carbon price support for oil and gas sector capped until 2020 and business rates reductions worth £6.7bn; and
  • Doubling UK export funding capacity.

Just in case you are not fuly stat-ed out just yet, the magic number is £1,950,198,032,349. That is what the OBR predicted the national debt will reach by 2021.

Moreover, after studying the details of the Autumn Statement, the Institute for Fiscal Studies declared that households are facing the sharpest squeeze on living standards since at least the Second World War. The IFS Director, Paul Johnson said: “One cannot stress enough how dreadful that is. More than a decade without real earnings growth.”

Proving that there is always room for more (negavitity), The Resolution Foundation went even further. Its Director, Torsten Bell said that “This decade is now set to be the weakest one for wage growth since the 1900s.” Fabulous. I am just amazed that no Conservative has thought to dredge up some irony and comment that we are all in this squeeze together,

I will wrap up with a brief NI point of view: Northern Ireland is set to see a £250m boost to infrastructure spending for capital projects over the next four years, which will come from the Barnett Formula. The aim of this package is to give NI “greater spending power to boost productivity and promote growth.” Exactly how this money is spent shall be decided by the Executive. Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is expected to set out the Executive’s plan when he presents his Budget to the Assembly next month.

To keep with the theme of finding negavitity in positive places, it should be noted that the British government’s ‘City Deal’ programme is still yet to cross the Irish Sea. It was noted by the Chancellor that the aim shall be that every city in Scotland has a Cty deal, and this will get underway in Wales also. Nothing, however, for Northern Ireland. It would appear that our Executive was disappointedly caught asleep at the wheel on this one.

Abortion, decriminalisation, and the women’s rights argument.

In 1967, an Act of the UK Parliament was passed, which legalised abortions by registered practitioners, and regulated the free provision of such medical practices through the National Health Service (NHS). This was the Abortion Act 1967, commonly referred to as the ‘1967 Act’.

It was introduced by David Steel as a Private Member’s Bill, but was backed by the British Government, who appointed the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Sir John Peel, to chair a medical advisory committee that reported in favour of passing the bill. The bill prompted heated political and moral debate, against  backdrop of conservatism, religious objection, and a legacy of so-called ‘backstreet abortions’. Under a free vote it was passed on 27 October 1967, coming into effect on 27 April 1968.

The 1967 Act made abortion legal in all of Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland) for up to 24 weeks’ gestation. In 1990, the law was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, meaning that abortion was no longer legal after 24 weeks except in cases where it was necessary to save the life of the woman, there was evidence of extreme fetal abnormality, or there was a grave risk of physical or mental injury to the woman.In May 2008, there was a parliamentary debate over whether the limit should be reduced from 24 to either 22 or 20 weeks but no changes were made.

Abortion laws in the United Kingdom appear stricter than those countries where abortion is available entirely on demand, as the health of the mother must be taken into account. Having said that, it has been said that abortion is “part of life in Great Britain“: one in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45. The highest rate is found among 21-year-olds. Abortion rates have remained fairly constant over the past few years, higher in England and Wales than in Scotland. It was found that 197,906 Britons and 5,190 non-British residents had an abortion last year. About 98% are NHS-funded and the vast majority, (around 80%) are carried out at fewer than 10 weeks pregnant. With this in mind, a campaign to lobby for abortion to be removed from the British justice statutes, and decriminalised entirely, is due to be launched this month by the country’s newest political party – the Women’s Equality Party.

You see, the current legislation governing abortion in Great Britain is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.The 1861 Act was amended by the Abortion Act 1967, but abortion actually still remains a criminal offence in Great Britain. As outlined previously, only cases that meet certain criteria are exempt from prosecution. Two doctors must sign to confirm that a woman’s or her unborn child’s health and welfare is at risk, and abortion is limited to 24 weeks maximum. Campaigners have argued that the 1967 Act thus requires reform, and that abortion services are only viable now because healthcare professionals operate around the law. Campaigners thus advocate for what has been termed ‘abortion on demand’, i.e. remove the requirement for doctors’ signatures and permit women to access abortion services when they need them. With an abortion outside these criteria still deemed criminal, the result is that a life prison sentence still exists on the statute books for women if they acquire an abortion without two doctors’ agreement.

It is on that basis that Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality party, has argued it is now time that abortion was made a sexual health and human rights issue. This has become a key policy for the new party, and it is hoped that a movement will be built that pressures other political parties to follow suite.

Ms Walker is proceeding on the argument that women’s healthcare rights – also termed ‘reproductive rights’ – are human rights. She submits that the existence of the criminal threat is a threat to women’s rights, and to the realisation of full equality. She has stated:

“That is why we want to debate this motion at our first conference and to put a focus on prioritising and funding sexual health and wellbeing. If you are denied control over your own body then you are denied so many other controls over your life. Any denial of reproductive rights is a form of violence against women, and the massive funding cuts ongoing in the UK are part of a real trend that is de-prioritising equality.”

Ms Walker might not have to wait too long for her campaign to encourage other politicans to advocate decriminalisation. Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, has tabled a 10-minute bill for next year, and where she hopes to also raise the issue of decriminalising abortion. Miss Johnson does not want to change time limits, but does want to see medical procedures under the governance of clinicians, as opposed to the current system of governance by the criminal law.

She has said that:

“any woman procuring an abortion is potentially facing a prison sentence of life under legislation dating from 1861 is patently something that needs looking at carefully…Decriminalising abortion, for both health professionals and for women, would put the issue with clinicians and health experts, where it belongs.”

What I found interesting about stumbling across this story today is that there is a Northern Irish connection to this.

Dawn Purvis, a former Leader of the Progressive Unionist party is on the advisory board of Marie Stopes International, which provides contraception and safe abortion services. She apparently will give a keynote speech at the first Women’s Equality party conference on the position in Northern Ireland, where several prosecutions are under way of women who have used the so-called ‘abortion pill’.

The 1967 Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal unless the doctor acts “only to save the life of the mother” or if continuing the pregnancy would result in the pregnant woman becoming a “physical or mental wreck.” Essentially, the situation in Northern Ireland (in 2016) is the same as it was in England before the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 remain in full force. It should be noted that rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not pemritted circumstances for women to acquire an abortion.

In November 2015, a Belfast High Court Judge found that the law in Northern Ireland breaches the human rights of women, and declared it incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998 which enshrined the ECHR into domestic law. Declaring a law to be incompatible with the ECHR does not render it invalid according to s4(6) of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998). The HRA 1998 provides that parliamentary sovereignty remains paramount; in the case of Northern Ireland the Assembly will decide whether to devise a bill pertaining to abortion in the state in light of the judge’s ruling. The Executive may also suggest a bill in light of the ruling. In addition, Mr Justice Horner did rule out imposing changes that could have led to limited terminations occuring in Northern Ireland. He stated that allowing abortions for victims of sexual crime, and cases of FFA under the present law would “be a step too far”. His decision thus placed the onus on the Assembly to consider his judgment, and how to proceed. But at present, there is no legal compunction on Stormont’s politicians to change the law.

I look forward to reading about the Women’s Equality Party Conference, and the speech to be delivered by Dawn Purvis. If Ms Walker’s proposed campaign receives strong support, it could resonate with other political parties. I am curious to see how Ms Johnson’s 10-minute bill progresses, and what comments are made during debate. I find mysef wondering if the heated debate witnessed in 1967 might be replicated in 2017, fifty years in the making.
Most of all, I wonder how the above will impact, if at all, Northern Ireland. It is a complicated, tangled mess of a legal-political scene. The political parties here are divided on the issue. Many parties are against the extension of the 1967 Act. Some have called for abortion to be legalised on the grounds of rape and incest. The Justice Minister is currently reviewing a completed reort which investigated whether aborion should be legalised on the grounds of FFA. Legal and political certainty is needed here.
So we wait, and wonder. I wrote something along the lines of waiting in November 2015. I find myself saying the same, nearly one full year on. And I will probably be writing the same in November 2017.