Walkout after Northern Irish First Minister defeats no confidence motion

The Belfast Telegraph reports that Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland, has defeated a no-confidence motion tabled against her in the Northern Ireland Assembly – although the Opposition are quick to point out that it gained an Assembly majority.

As explained on this site yesterday, the SDLP motion was motivated by Foster’s involvement in a disastrously mismanaged green energy scheme which looks set to cost Ulster taxpayers more than £400 million. She branded it a “constitutional coup d’etat”, and it fell for lack of sufficient cross-communal support.

However the other parties escalated the crisis by walking out of the chamber ahead of a statement from the First Minister on the scheme, arguing that she didn’t have authority to deliver one without the support of Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister. According to a Sky News correspondent it is “effectively the collapse of the devolved government in Northern Ireland”.

First of the SNP’s fallen stars referred to prosecutors

Last week’s column led with the news that Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, a prominent SNP MP, had become the fourth to be embroiled in a financial scandal whcih could cost her her seat. But this week the very first of those four is back in the headlines.

Michelle Thomson, the Edinburgh West MP who was previously a high-profile member of ‘Business for Scotland’, has been named in a police report to prosecutors following an investigation into alleged mortgage fraud, according to the Daily Record. For an overview of how mortgage fraud works, see this post by (pro-Union) lawyer Ian Smart.

Earlier this year Nationalist sources were indicating that Thomson would regain to the SNP whip as she was “in the clear”.

Wales gains income tax powers for the first time

A new deal will see income tax rates partially set in Cardiff Bay in a little more than two years, Wales Online reports. The Welsh government will gain control of 10p in each band, whilst the block grant from the Treasury will be reduced, after negotiations between David Gauke, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Mark Drakeford, the Welsh finance minister.

The deal also doubles the amount of capital borrowing available to the Welsh Government to £1 billion and sets a floor for Welsh funding at 115 per cent of per person spending in England.

The Welsh Assembly needs to consent to the bill, but there are no plans for a referendum. Labour figures such as Neil Kinnock and Peter Hain previously mounted a campaign to insist the voters were consulted before new powers were transferred.

In other news Lord Elis-Thomas, a former Plaid Cymru leader who now sits as an Independent in the Assembly after resigning the nationalist whip, has announced his intention to support Carwyn Jones’ Labour administration.

Fallon sparks Cabinet row in defence of British troops facing investigation for Troubles conduct

The Sun reports that the Defence Secretary earlier this week demanded ‘major curbs’ into a forthcoming investigation into veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

Fallon spoke out to insist that the police should be targeted, proportionate, conform to a strict time limit, and exempt very old soldiers, telling MPs that “I am certainly not going to let the Northern Ireland process descend into another witch hunt”.

This was described as a “major embarrassment” for James Brokenshire, the Northern Irish Secretary, who has apparently repeatedly insisted that ministers can’t intervene in the Northern Irish police’s new probe, and followed “several days of tense conversations” between the two ministers’ teams, the Sun claims.

Brokenshire’s push for progress on legacy issues has also been stalled, says the Belfast Telegraph, by a stand-off between the British Government and Sinn Fein over the non-release of UK state papers on national security grounds.

Elsewhere a retired unionist politician who was reportedly shot by an IRA man has ridiculed the decision to prosecute the two soldiers who killed his would-be assassin, according to the News Letter.

Sturgeon unveils ‘soft Brexit’ plans her own Brexit adviser dismisses

The First Minister of Scotland has outlined proposals for the country to remain part of the EEA and EFTA even if the UK does not, ensuring the “softest Brexit”. This puts the Scottish Government at odds with the Prime Minister, who has taken a firm line on an all-UK approach to Brexit that befits the fact that foreign policy is reserved.

Nicola Sturgeon described losing single market access as potentially “devastating” for Scotland – although the European market takes a smaller share of Scottish exports than the USA and far less than the UK. According to Matthew Lynn in the Spectator the EU accounts for £11.6bn, vs £15.2bn for the rest of the world and £48.5bn for the rest of the UK.

However Charles Grant, one of the First Minister’s hand-picked Brexit advisers, says it is very hard to see how the plans are “legally, politically or technically feasible”, the Daily Telegraph reports.

In other news Alex Bell, a former head of policy for the SNP, has denounced the Nationalists’ timidity in their budget, opening an op-ed in the Daily Record with: “Cowards one and all. The Scottish Government had the means to help Scotland, and chose not to.”

Elsewhere Alex Salmond undermined Sturgeon’s reassurances by declaring that the Nationalists may shoot for another referendum without consistent 50 per cent support, well below the 60 per cent set by his successor.