Trimble urges Brokenshire to bypass Sinn Fein and the DUP

David Trimble, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, has called on the Secretary of State to side-step the Province’s deadlocked major parties and hand power directly to the Assembly, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

The former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who now sits as a Conservative peer, urged this course of action as an alternative to direct rule, which he claims would be a ‘retrograde’ step. Instead he argues that the Assembly should be allowed to sit with or without the consent of either of the major parties, neither of whom command even a third of the seats.

For his part, James Brokenshire appears to be doing his utmost to avoid, or at least look as if he tried to avoid, a return to the direct administration of Ulster by the Northern Irish Office. Every deadline he has set for the DUP and Sinn Fein to conclude negotiations has been missed, and every miss has led only to another extension – which obviously gives neither party much incentive to take the Secretary of State seriously.

Sam McBride argues in the News Letter that the NIO must want it abundantly clear that, if they do eventually need to take on responsibility for Northern Ireland’s public services, it is at least beyond doubt that they tried to avoid it. This may help assuage alarm in Dublin, and moderate nationalist circles, about the resumption of ‘London rule’.

Tell the Welsh Government how it can tax you into a better person

Politicians dreaming up new taxes is nothing new. Nor, alas, are legislators who want to use state power to “change behaviour” and mould their citizens into closer approximations of centrally-approved virtues.

Yet Carwyn Jones’ administration may have just blazed a new path on this well-trodden route: WalesOnline reports that it has appealed to the public to suggest new ways that it could tax them, and their lifestyles in particular.

Devolved politicians in Wales have been demanding tax powers for some time. If this had been based on some clear and urgent need then, now that such powers are being delivered, we might have expected them to step forward with clear plans for action.

Instead, we have ministers appealing to the public to help them come up with things to do, and expand on a list by a local think tank which includes such puritan gems as taxes on sugar, sunbeds, and takeaways (from the administration waging war on vaping). Perhaps the Welsh Government’s learned their stance on powers from the Treasury in (appropriately enough) Yes, Prime Minister’s smoking episode:

Sir Humphrey: “Prime Minister, the Treasury doesn’t work out what they need to spend and then think how to raise the money.”

Jim Hacker: “What does it do?”

Sir Humphrey: “They pitch for as much as they think they can get away with and then think what to spend it on.”

Northern Irish Secretary to act on donor transparency

A consequence of the de facto drift towards Westminster rule in Northern Ireland is that mainland political pressures have a greater bearing on issues which were previously sheltered by devolution and its attendant disinterest from politicians outwith the Province.

One clear example of that is the announcement that Brokenshire is going to make a statement on extending transparency for political donations to Northern Ireland, on the basis that the previous security considerations which justified secrecy are no longer sufficient justification for continuing the practice.

This has been a subject of close interest to some of the DUP’s critics, who allege that a six-figure donation by the Constitutional Research Council during the Brexit referendum is sinister ‘dark money’ which is subverting democracy. Indeed, Brokenshire has already been criticised for not making the transparency rules retro-active to 2014.

Another area is abortion, where Parliament recently voted to grant Ulsterwomen free abortions on the mainland. The DUP is gearing up to resist further pressure on this point: Ian Paisley Jr stated recently in Parliament that the “rights of the unborn child” trumped any political deal his party might strike on other issues.

However, should responsibility for legislating for Ulster revert to Westminster it is very possible that bills to bring the Province into line with British norms on social issues could be passed despite the opposition of the majority of those Northern Irish MPs taking their seats.

SNP spared (most of) EU fine thanks to Britain

One of the several recent stories which have wounded the SNP’s reputation for competent government is that they have screwed up the implementation of EU subsidies to Scottish farmers.

Brussels set a deadline of last Friday for Member States to have paid out 95.24 per cent of Common Agricultural Policy payments, according to STV, yet the Scottish Government is on track to have paid only 90 per cent. Last year the EU granted them a four-month extension as an “exceptional measure”, although they still failed to make all their payments within that new window.

Apparently the Scottish Government expects to face a fine of around £5 million – but because DEFRA has paid 99.2 per cent of subsidies in England, the overall UK figure is high enough to avoid a larger fine, which Audit Scotland could have risen up to £60 milion.