Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist and writer. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.

Northern Irish Haass talks break up without agreement

Five-party talks in Northern Ireland aimed at resolving some of the most difficult areas of conflict left over from the Good Friday Agreement have broken up without agreement. The talks, chaired by US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, were established to seek compromise positions on the topics of parading, flags and emblems, and how Northern Ireland tackles the past, and had until the end of the year to find them.

Representatives of the nationalist parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, were prepared to recommend the proposals outlined in the seventh and final draft of Haass’ recommendations in full. However both the Democratic and Ulster Unionists felt unable to sign up to them in their present form, whilst the Alliance Party opposed the resolution on the flags issue, in which it has been deeply embroiled since voting with the nationalists to stop the year-round flying of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall.

All sides are keen to recommend that this is not the end of the process and doesn’t represent the definitive failure of attempts to reach settlements on these contentious issues – apart perhaps from Gerry Adams, who has stated his intention to seek an ‘urgent meeting’ with the British and Irish governments to see if they can produce a ‘road map to resolution’. Everybody else seems to think that the process will continue within Northern Ireland, with a new iteration of the talks continuing into the New Year.

Scots crackdown on e-cigarettes proposed

A nationalist MSP has called for the restriction of sale of electronic cigarettes. Stewart Maxwell, convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee, objects to a loophole wherein there is no age restriction on the purchase of the devices despite some of them containing nicotine.

Maxwell also believes that Scotland should have the power to control (and almost certainly ban) the advertising of these products, in order to avoid a return to the “bad old days” when tobacco advertising was legal, and we trusted citizens to exercise the same personal judgement over tobacco that they do over alcohol, foodstuffs and all other advertised consumer products.

The UK currently takes a very liberal attitude to e-cigarettes, which are used by more than a million smokers and ex-smokers nationwide. Their key function is to replicate the physical behaviour of smoking, and in some cases deliver the chemical hit from nicotine, without the use of smoke, tobacco, tar and the other ingredients of traditional smoking products. Instead the chemicals, when present, are delivered by an otherwise harmless vapour.

An anti-smoking movement that sought to strike a balance between minimising harms and respecting people’s freedom to consume products which shorten their lives might welcome e-cigarettes as a middle ground. Yet the more puritan anti-smoking activists see in them the threat that on some level, behaviour of which they disapprove might be normalised. Some countries are even looking to ban electronic cigarettes altogether as part of their broader drives towards tobacco prohibition.

Wales sees New Year’s Eve firefighter strike

Firefighters across Wales were planning in a six-hour strike over New Year’s Eve. The strike, called by the Fire Brigades’ Union, is in protest at government plans to raise the retirement age for firefighters from 55 to 60 and increase their pension contributions, in line with policies being effected elsewhere to bring public sector pay and conditions closer to those of the private sector.

Yet representatives of the FBU claim that the changes could see ‘at least two thirds’ of fire service personnel face dismissal or see their pensions halved because they cannot maintain the service’s required fitness standards beyond the age of 55. Fresh negotiations are scheduled for the new year, but the government insists that under its proposals Fire Brigade pensions remain amongst the best in the public sector and on a level which is wholly out of reach of workers on similar pay in the private sector.

Crews maintained that they would return to work in the event of a serious incident that endangered human life, as certain English crews did on Christmas Eve.

Small, viable bomb discovered in South Armagh

Families from a street in South Armagh were evacuated in the early hours of December 31 after a suspicious object was discovered by one of the houses. Army experts who examined it have declared it to be a small but fully functional explosive device and are appealing for information.