The Political Week in 5 Points

New and improved! Stormont stalemate continues

The Northern Ireland Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions Bill passed the House on Commons on Wednesday. The bill is intended to give “clarity and certainty” to senior civil servants to take decisions with guidance from the Secretary of State in the absence of Stormont ministers.

The bill establishes a five-month period during which an Executive may be formed without an Assembly election (some mathematically-minded individuals have noted that the time-limit of this bill, March 26, 2019, neatly coincides with the Brexit deadline.) There is also the option to extend this five-month period by a further five months. It also allows UK government ministers to make public appointments in the absence of Stormont ministers to certain bodies, including the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission and Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley says that the bill “provides time and space” for the parties to work to get Stormont back up and running. Others have criticized the bill for simply relieving the Secretary of State of the need to make difficult decisions about calling an election or imposing direct rule. It comes after a High Court recently ruled that civil servants did not have the authority to make certain key decisions in the absence of ministers.

Karen Bradley said: “I don’t want to be introducing this legislation, but it is unfortunately necessary to deliver public services in Northern Ireland.” No one seems particularly convinced that this legislation will change the stalemate in Northern Ireland anytime soon. (To hear some bold, innovative thinking on how to address the democratic deficit, check out Northern Slant’s own Jamie Pow on Citizens’ Assemblies on BBC’s the View. Full disclosure: we think it’s a pretty good idea.)

‘Fast-track’ Brexit deal with WTO proving trickier than previously thought

Around 20 countries have filed reservations with the UK’s attempt to ‘fast track’ a deal with the World Trade Organization on terms of trade after Brexit. The World Trade Organization is made up of 164 countries which, unless they have separate free trade agreements with each other, agree to trade under “WTO rules.” Every member has a list of tariffs and quotas that apply to certain countries, known as their WTO schedule.

Currently, the UK is a member of the WTO in its own right. However, the UK is included in the EU’s WTO schedule. After Brexit, the UK will need to negotiate with the other EU countries and the WTO about how to split this schedule. The UK and EU have agreed to an approach to split the quota according to the historical flows of trade and Britain’s Trade Secretary Liam Fox said this would simply be a “technical rectification.” However, 20 countries have opposed the plan (including Russia, US, and New Zealand) in the WTO, fearing they could lose out from the new arrangements — particularly in the agricultural sector. Therefore, the UK will have to open talks with all twenty, which experts say could take years.

This isn’t a total catastrophe. If a deal is not reached before March, there will likely be stop-gap measures put in place (and others point out that it was only last year that EU schedules to include new member state of Croatia was finalized). However, it demonstrates that in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, trading under WTO rules will take much more time and negotiation than promised.

(In an unrelated incident, meteorologists recorded unusual winds this week which they reported sounded suspiciously like 16 million remain voters muttering “we told you so” under their breaths.)

Wee man with the nice dogs still gets to be President

Michael D. Higgins (also known as ‘Miggeldy’; also known as ‘the wee man with the nice dogs’) was elected for a second term as the president of Ireland with 56% of the vote. President Higgins said: “The people have made a choice as to which version of Irishness they want reflected at home and abroad. It is the making of hope they wish to share rather than the experience of any exploitation of division or fear.” In a surprise last-minute surge, independent candidate Peter Casey finished in second place. Some attributed this support to his controversial statements about the traveller community.

In the same election, meanwhile, Irish voters voted to remove the offense of blasphemy from the constitution. Although no one in the Republic of Ireland has ever been prosecuted for the crime of blasphemy (the last prosecution was in 1855, during British rule), the continued existence of the offense came to attention when comedian Stephen Fry made comments on television last year. “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world so full of injustice and pain?” Fry asked on RTE. The Irish police opened an inquiry into Fry, but the case was ultimately dropped when the Gardaí could not find anyone who was offended. There was widespread support for the repeal of the law — the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference said earlier this month that the article on blasphemy was “largely obsolete.”

Leicester in shock after helicopter crash

The city of Leicester is reeling from the crash on Saturday evening of a helicopter belonging to owner of the city’s football club. Sixty-year-old Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who bought the team in 2010 and saw them unexpectedly become Premier League champions in 2016, was reported to have been on board along with four other people.

The helicopter went down in a car park shortly after taking off from the King Power Stadium, where Leicester had just played West Ham United. Authorities are working to determine what may have caused the crash and to confirm the identities of those on board.

A tragic week for the United States, with attempted bomb attacks and yet another mass shooting

Fourteen explosive devices were sent by mail to prominent Democrats and critics of Donald Trump, including former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. None of them went off, but the US Department of Justice said the bombs were “not hoax devices” and warned more may still be undiscovered. Cesar Sayoc, a man from Aventura, Florida and apparently a staunch Trump supporter, was arrested and charged in connection with the attempted bomb attacks.

While President Trump said “these terrorising acts are despicable and have no place in our country”, he also tweeted that the media had contributed to a climate of anger and appeared to imply that the bombs could be a hoax created to harm Republicans in the midterms next week. The president rejected calls to cancel his scheduled political rallies, while many have called for him to “tone down” his rhetoric.

In Pittsburgh yesterday, a gunman armed with an assault rifle and three handguns opened fire in a Synagogue, killing 11 people and wounding six others. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the attack was among the deadliest against the Jewish community in the United States. Hate crime charges were filed against the alleged shooter, who surrendered to authorities.

Originally published at Northern Slant.

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Alina Utrata

Alina Utrata

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PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com