Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Good Friday Agreement 20 Years On.

Over the coming weeks we will be inundated with information on the success of the Good Friday Agreement on this the 20th anniversary.  As was pointed out by one man yesterday these reports will not be delivered from Stormont which remains largely empty or working class areas but from expensive venues in the suburbs. Well they couldn’t have the truth getting in the way of the propaganda and stage management now could they?   

At this point it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the efforts of some of the architects behind the Good Friday Agreement, you know war criminals like Tony Blair and proponents of state sanctioned execution such as Bill Clinton.  Then on a local level you had the genuine people like John Hume, a man I have huge respect for and Ian Paisley's former dance partner David Trimble, both of whom ultimately sacrificed their parties in the name of peace.  Then there is Sinn Fein.  Whatever your thoughts on Sinn Fein supporting this agreement left them with the difficult task of abandoning many of the principles they espoused something they still clearly struggle with accepting today. And as is typical of the DUP, well they said No!

In 1998  I voted for the Good Friday Agreement, aware of the imperfections but hopeful that things would at the very least improve.  Being pregnant at the time I didn’t want my children to grow up in the same environment that I did.  And, if I’m honest I think what further attracted me to the yes vote, outside of my hopefulness and gullibility, was the fact that my husband was vehemently opposed, something he remains quick to remind me of.

Outside of the cheesy cliched television advertisements I didn’t pay particular attention to the Good Friday Agreement campaign and I certainly didn’t read the small print which is always advisable.  In  hindsight, had I have taken the time to read through the literature before voting I certainly wouldn’t have voted yes.  This as the agreement promised all things to all men or rather the political representatives did. Unionists promised the party faithful a secure union with Britain whilst nationalists and republicans sold the agreement on the basis of equality, prosperity and as a stepping stone to a united Ireland.  A monumental con-job if ever there was one!

Granted, some things are better than they were when you consider the cessation of Provisional  IRA attacks on the British State after 40 years and how the British Army presence is today less visible on our streets, with British Troops still in barracks most of the time.  However, a close inspection of what passes for Stormont governance here can only be compared to the emperor’s new clothes and Nero fiddling as Rome burned, with fiddling and burning being the optimum words.

Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement we await the peace dividend, we still have peace walls, unfulfilled promises, high unemployment, increasing poverty, a lack of services and suicide has claimed more lives in twenty years than the conflict did in forty.  Yet despite this the only services which seem to be increasing are the local food banks and welfare rights services many of which are offered on a voluntary basis and by people whose sole focus is on helping the most vulnerable in their community. People who in my opinion are all too often undervalued yet living proof that not all superheroes wear capes.

There has always been the need for welfare rights assistance in the North which has never really been the land of opportunity but ask yourselves how many foodbanks did we have  before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement?  And how many school breakfast clubs did we have?  In many cases these clubs provide a stop gap for children who otherwise wouldn’t have breakfast.  And when you consider this keep in mind that the last Stormont assembly failed to bring forward an anti-poverty strategy which should give you an indication of where their priorities lie. But then some of these same parties through the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015 gave the Tories devolved welfare power to implement welfare reform so I shouldn’t really be surprised. But hey, sure isn’t it better than it was?  The question is, better for whom?

Moving on from the bread and butter issues the Good Friday Agreement also promised measures compatible with a normal and peaceful society. I took this promise to be specifically in reference to the justice system and the erasing of  the oppressive measures of the past.  Measures such as internment, the Diplock non-jury courts and the degradation of prisoners.  

The degradation of prisoners continues today with the prisons being used as dumping grounds for people who require medical treatment which is not available and via the continued ill treatment of political prisoners.  With this we still have Diplock courts, closed courts and internment, as is evident in the ongoing incarceration of Tony Taylor who two years on remains in prison with neither charge nor trial on the word of MI5 who were given supremacy over policing in the north during the Weston Park Agreement and who it would seem run the show.  Measures compatible with a normal and peaceful society? 

The Good Friday agreement further promised an era in which justice would be done and be seen to be done which brings me to my next points having touched on the case of Tony Taylor above:

Yesterday two press conferences took place in the north. One was broadcast on mainstream media and the other on social media.  The first consisted of the members and leaders of proscribed loyalist organisations promising an end to criminal activity, only in Norn Iron! Despite some participants openly admitting to their support, membership and leadership roles within these illegal organisations no arrests were made even though the PSNI  Chief  Constable later commented on the issues I have just touched on.

In contrast, the political party  Saoradh held a press conference which was broadcast on social media to highlight the unfairness of charges imposed upon several of their members for their perceived role in organising the recent Easter Commemoration in Derry.

During this interview the spokesperson highlighted the impossible and draconian bail conditions that their members were subject to, measures which included being banned from their office in Chamberlain Street, from interacting with each other and a limit being placed on the number of adults outside of their family circle they could engage with.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the imposed limit on engagement applied to those who practice their religious faith during which they would be in the company of more than the specified number of people, going to the shop or attending the doctor’s surgery to which the same would apply. This is possibly why many of the conditions were lifted today and the detainees granted bail with a £500 fine, after being arrested in a very heavy handed fashion yesterday following the press conference. 

Now to address another incident directly linked to the promise of justice being done and being seen to be done which is the incident involving Councillor Kevin Campbell’s car which was set alight in the early hours of Sunday morning in the driveway of his Creggan home.  From the outset I would like to make it clear that I oppose criminal damage and that  we are plagued with the same issues in our area where cars are burned on a regular basis as local members of Sinn Fein can confirm. I also have had personal experience of this when a similar attempt was made on our car causing extensive damage to one side of the vehicle. Therefore, I know how this feels and can totally sympathise with the Campbell family on that basis.

However, what I could not  comprehend was the levelling of baseless accusations following the incident by those quick to erect Kangaroo Courts and with some Sinn Fein members taking the law into their own hands by arriving mob handed at the home of the partner of the man accused who was later confronted by Kevin himself. Whilst I accept Kevin’s anger in this matter, what I don’t understand is why Kevin as an elected representative and a proud supporter of policing and justice didn’t call the PSNI instead of running around Creggan in the early hours of the morning with his mates like Keystone Kops levelling accusations and fuelling tensions in an area already fraught with tension.   

When our car was burned I had an idea who was behind it, but as Kevin should maybe consider, knowing, thinking you know and proving are three different things.  Without proof, at best what you are left with is supposition which even within the Kangaroo Court system only goes so far before being recognised as felon setting and in this case political point scoring and grandstanding. 

On now to another justice issue. With Sinn Fein representatives quite vocal at the minute maybe they can explain why their party with others who were previously opposed to legacy elements of the Stormont House Agreement (2014) after the leaking of related draft clauses in 2015 are now promoting the need for their implementation. What has changed?  

·         Will the British Secretary of State no longer have a veto over information disclosure with regard to troubles related killings?
·         Will those who served in state agencies during the troubles period no longer qualify for position within the Historical Investigations Unit?
·         Will the HIU director now be hired and if necessary fired independently of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers? 
·         Will the HIU lifespan now exceed the five year timeframe previously laid down?
·         And will the high number of inquests run independently of the HIU?

I won’t hold my breath waiting for answers but if you have them then I would prefer you email them to me  instead of visiting me after the antics of your party comrades in the early hours of Sunday morning.

As you can see from the above very little has changed for the better in the north since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement unless you regard window dressing and a political shambles as change and progress.  And with each deal that follows in a bid to ‘restore the institutions’ we can be sure of one thing and that is that the British state will remain the main beneficiary of each agreement.

Do you wish it could be like this all the time?

Monday, 12 February 2018

Communication, Education and Less Condemnation

I attended a recent event held in the Maldron Hotel in Derry.  The event which was organised by the Strabane AYE Project and chaired by Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher consisted of an information session followed by a broad discussion on mental health, drugs misuse and addiction. 

 I can honestly say that this event was one of the most informative sessions I have ever attended with the focus on a proactive and pragmatic approach to the growing drugs and addiction crisis. Communication, education and less condemnation was the general message from those who have experienced addiction, from organisations who work with those suffering from addiction and from Foyle Search and Rescue who in many cases deal with the aftermath.

 Starting the discussion was Brendan Magee a drugs counsellor from Dublin who has personal experience of drug addiction.  Brendan grew up as one of eight children in a home where domestic violence was prevalent which had a profound impact on him.  Brendan who is now 12 years free of drugs provided a contribution which was truly inspirational and proof that there is life after addiction with determination and essentially, statutory and community support.

 The next speaker was Fr Peter McVerry who began his address with advising the audience that ‘drugs are here to stay’ and explained that the problem is not just confined to young people from poorer areas. And, with the levels of profit to be made, the situation is set to get worse which is why we need to be educating young people into the dangers of drugs .

 In his address Fr McVerry outlined how we as a community need to stop marginalising people affected by drug and substance misuse and that we need to start treating drugs misuse as a social and medical problem. A problem which ultimately requires investment in medical centres, qualified staff and after care instead of relying on the criminal justice system as a means of dealing with issues that require medical care as opposed to criminalisation.

 Next to address the audience was Stephen from Foyle Search and Rescue.  Through his contribution Stephen gave some background information on the work carried out by Foyle Search and Rescue and provided the following statistics: 
In 25 years:
130 people died in the river
330 people have been rescued
3000 people were stopped from entering the river
Last year alone Foyle Search and Rescue dealt with 338 incidents
17 people entered the river
317 people were found in distress, some as young as 14-16, the majority of which were alcohol and drugs related
7 people died after entering the river

Stephen further spoke of how the assistance provided by Foyle Search and Rescue in respect of safeguarding those in crisis consists of referring people to the police or hospital from where they can be discharged within hours.  Stephen described this as totally inadequate.

 Dessie Kyle from HURT provided background information on HURT and outlined information on a range of accredited courses they regularly offer in a bid to increase education on drugs misuse and addiction. Dessie when speaking about the lack of resources  raised issue the fact that a funding application for a Crisis Intervention Service from HURT in conjunction with Foyle Search & Rescue was rejected via the OFMDFM Social Investment Fund 5 years ago. Dessie as with the other panellists believes that criminalising people with addiction problems is not the answer but that education and investment are key to addressing these issues.  

The next speaker was Tommy Canning representing the Northlands Centre. Northlands was established 40 years ago in the city in response to the levels of alcohol addiction. Tommy outlined how although initially founded to address alcohol addiction Northlands also deals with the growing epidemic of prescription drugs misuse something later touched on by Psychotherapist Liam Stewart who was in attendance from the charity Heal the Hurt.  Tommy described addiction as the ‘Cinderella of the Health Services’ with this area continually overlooked and under resourced.  Tommy also asked that people don’t narrow the discussion on addiction to young people as this is an issue effecting older people too.  And again, criminalisation is not the answer.

 The message shared by the panellists and through contributions from the floor was that the something needed to happen to address the mental health problems, drug use and addiction crisis and that we as a society need to treat these issues as social and medical problems.  It is totally unacceptable that prisons are being used to detain those who are all too often in need of medical intervention. From the criminal justice system rehabilitation and reintegration becomes more difficult with the added burden of a criminal record and needs not being properly met whilst in prison.  These views are also shared by senior members of the justice system here.

 In an interview with local Magistrate Judge Barney McElholmon 8th December 2017 in the Derry News he talked at length about mental health, addiction and the law. In this article McElholm also outlined ‘the lack of a rehabilitating institution to which he can refer people with mental health and addiction issues, rather than simply consigning them to prison.’

 In relation to dual diagnosis which is the term applied to people with mental health and addiction problems Judge McElholm had this to say:
 “The fact is that people have these dual problems of mental health and addiction issues that it’s very hard to get people back onto a normal path from. But putting them in prison for short periods of time, we, as judges, have come to realise is a waste of time.”

 In 2017 talks took place between the departments of justice and health with regard to how to tackle the problem of mental illness in prisons.  In an address to the Stormont Assembly the then Justice Minister Clare Sugden advised that Since November 2015, there have been five deaths in custody in Northern Ireland, four relating to mental health issues. On 17 November 2016, the prison population totalled 1,533. Of these, 417 were recorded as having a mental illness, and a further 740 prisoners were recorded as having an addiction. That amounts to just over 75% of the prison population.

 The Governor of Maghaberry prison is on record stating that prisons are not suitable for dealing with many of those sent there.  This is hardly surprising when you consider a recent article from the Detail which outlined the confusion over whether or not a strategy to tackle drugs in the prisons here had been implemented.  This as the figures at that time showed that the abuse of prescription medication by prisoners was posing a greater challenge than illicit Class A drugs.

 In the midst of all this and from a North West point of view there is the ongoing issue of a proposed Crisis intervention service for the city, something I have touched upon on a few occasions. This proposed service is being spearheaded by Derry Strabane District Council who allocated an initial £40,000, since increased to £80,000 with an additional £10,000 from the Western Health Trust. Once again I would express my dismay at not only why the Council is spearheading and funding something which is clearly the remit of Stormont, but that £50,000 or £90,000 is considered an adequate level of funding for such a service when the annual cost of detaining a prisoner based upon 2016 figures is £57,643.

 What is also worth noting is that out of 1,624 prisoners released during 2012/13 – (the most recent figures available.) 50.7% of drug offenders - 109 out of 215 released reoffended. Just imagine if 50%(54) of those drug offenders released did not reoffend it would save an estimated £3,112,722 and those funds were put into crisis intervention services and community based drug intervention and education services!

 I do want to also state that despite my criticism I applaud Derry Strabane Council for their efforts on this, however this is something that the Health Trust should be implementing in partnership with those agencies within the community & voluntary sector who have a proven track record.

 A key fact that also needs taken into consideration is the transgenerational impact of the troubles something which was raised at the event by Patricia Campbell a Mental Health Nurse and Trade Union Activist. This is something author David Bolton a retired social worker and senior manager in the health service addresses in his book Conflict, Peace and Mental Health: Addressing the Consequences of Conflict and Trauma in Northern Ireland, in his book he outlined how traumatic experiences have affected the lives of more than 210,000 people in the North stating that the North had the highest levels of PTSD among a number of countries that experienced conflict, including Israel, South Africa and the Lebanon.

 With the number of deaths attributed to suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement surpassing the number of lives lost during the near forty year conflict serious consideration must be given to the transgenerational impact of trauma on many of those suffering addiction problems.

 There are many factors which will need taken into consideration if we are to begin to properly address the addiction issue, but we do need to start somewhere, a baseline should be exploring successful models from elsewhere coupled with the understanding that there is the need to look at this in a holistic context.  For me the key word is hope. For as long as people lose hope because of lack of opportunity, the impact of the troubles, a lack of resources, are uneducated about drugs and a whole plethora of factors then they may potentially fall foul of the curse of addiction.

 Thursday night’s meeting for me was a great starting point in a dialogue that could ultimately change and save lives.

Monday, 5 February 2018

A New Approach?

This Thursday 8th February I will be attending a meeting in the Maldron Hotel in Derry the focus of which will be on drugs and the growing addiction crisis in this city and beyond. This event will be hosted by the Strabane based AYE project which is a youth engagement project aimed at helping to overcome barriers to social inclusion, education, employment & training.

The event panel will include renowned Community Rights Activist Father Peter McVerry who since his ordination in 1974 has been working with youths in Dublin’s north inner city. Father Peter McVerry is the founder of the Peter McVerry Trust a charity established to help reduce homelessness and the harm caused by drug misuse and social disadvantage. Key elements of the Trust’s work include a Residential Detox Service, daytime stabilisation and recovery services and aftercare accommodation services at four separate locations in Dublin.

If we compare the above service provision in Dublin to the services available in the North we can see serious disparity. In a bid to address this disparity locally Derry and Strabane District Council presented a proposal for a ‘Crisis Intervention Service’ which with all due respect to them doesn’t even the scratch the surface of what is required.

On Thursday 7th July 2017, at a meeting of Derry and Strabane District Council’s Health and Community Committee it was agreed that Council would initiate an open procurement process to advance the establishment of a Community Crisis Intervention Service in the city. An ‘open procurement process for a low threshold responsive Community Crisis Intervention Service (CCIS) over a six-month period.’

This proposed service was to be ‘a timely non-clinical community response to individuals experiencing social, emotional or situational crisis over the weekend period. And would be the subject of an ‘on-going evaluation’, via the Ulster University, Magee.

In the event of a positive evaluation the various agencies set to benefit from the service (according to the Council document) such as the PSNI and Emergency Services would ‘be required to commit funding on the basis of a co- design Community Plan approach should the initial evaluation determine an extension of or development of a long-term service is required’. Yet whether or not an agreement was made with these agencies remains unknown.

This project had a budget of £50,000. £40,000 from Council and £10,000 from the Western Health and Social Care Trust. A key question is why this became the responsibility of our local council when this is clearly the remit of the Health Department under the devolved assembly?

It would be foolish to deny there is a ‘recreational‘ drugs culture as well as problematic drug/substance abuse however, we cannot overlook contributing risk factors such as high unemployment, poverty, poor housing and high deprivation as contributing factors. Ideally, as well as having a service to support those in crisis, the risk factors that influence addiction, mental health & wellbeing need to be included somewhere in the equation to address this in a holistic context. Central to this is a properly resourced joined-up partnership approach, after all it is said there is ‘no health, without mental health’.

Figures published in the Belfast Telegraph in December 19th, 2017 show that the North of Ireland has the highest rate of suicide in the UK yet in comparison to other areas the funds are 25% lower. Figures show that in 2016 221 men and 76 women completed suicide. As I’ve pointed out previously this is the equivalent of a plane crash each year with the figures from 2015 showing a higher figure of 318 deaths. If a plane was to crash each year in the North, there would be a robust investigation to determine the causes and to prevent it yet sadly despite the high-levels of suicide, mental health funding remains the lowest in the UK. And although the published figures do not explore the underlying contributing factors the impact of substance abuse must be included.

I would hope Thursday nights event may spark a positive debate on avenues which could be explored in how we address a range of factors surrounding this emotive issue.

In an article published in the Derry News yesterday Father McVerry states that ‘the most effective response to drug use is communication, communication and more communication.’ Which is something I agree with, quite simply if we want to find out the reason for someone using drugs the question needs to be asked in an open manner. This type of approach can help the design and implementation of appropriate interventions and support services allowing for the targeting of resources.

Another interesting comment made by Father McVerry is that it is counter-productive to give ‘young people a criminal record for possession of drugs it only makes rehabilitation more difficult, marginalises them further from society and makes it more likely they will continue to use drugs.’ This is something which again is an interesting approach and I can see some merit in, however in what context it would apply and what the threshold would be is something that should spark a broad conversation.

This is going to be an interesting event.

Hope to see you there.x

Monday, 29 January 2018

Always Read The Fine Print

As with previous years division has again reared its ugly head in Derry in the run up to the annual Bloody Sunday March for Justice.  The issues which caused the most controversy this year were the design / content of the march poster and the lack of accountability from the organising committee responsible for the march.

How can a poster cause controversy? Well the poster as you can see has the words ‘We Shall Over Come’ in large letters but the controversial element stems from the inclusion of a range of names and campaign issues the majority of which have no relevance to Bloody Sunday.

The publication of names and campaigns on a poster was always going to be problematic because of some of the following reasons:

·         The poster would not accommodate the names of all those who died during the troubles therefore someone was always going to feel that the name of their loved one should have been listed. In the case of the English family from the city who lost two family members during the troubles, one son Gary who was murdered by the British Army in 1981 was listed whereas his brother IRA volunteer Charles English who died in 1985 was not. How the inclusion of one son and not the other was acceptable is beyond me. Common sense was clearly missing here given the names of other IRA volunteers were listed. It is worth noting that Charles English joined the ranks of the IRA after his brother was murdered, similar to many others who joined the IRA after Bloody Sunday.

·         The Brady family from Strabane raised issue with poster and the fact that they were not consulted about the inclusion of John’s name. John Brady was a former republican prisoner who died in suspicious circumstances whilst being held at the Strand Road PSNI station in 2009.

·         The inclusion of Ranger William Best a member of the British Army from Derry alongside victims of state violence and Republicans who lost their lives was a bone of contention for many republicans contradicting the position taken by members of the march committee who recently staged a protest at the Museum of Free Derry. A protest in opposition to the names of their loved ones being listed alongside state forces who were killed during the Free Derry period (1968-1972).

·         The inclusion of internee Tony Taylor on the same poster as Mozamm Begg when Tony’s wife refused to sit on a fringe event platform with Mr Begg last year due to his connection with M15 should have been blatantly obvious to the organisers.

·         The pro-life lobbyists were always going to raise issue with the inclusion of the Repeal the 8th Amendment given that they too have a contingent on the march each year.  Therefore the banner was not inclusive.

It would seem from the information on the poster that the organisers had absolutely no concept of hypocrisy, inclusiveness or contemporary Irish history and the sensitivities around it, well either that or they chose to ignore them. As pointed out above the inclusion of names of loved ones was an issue that members of the organising committee raised with the Bloody Sunday Trust regarding the Museum of Free Derry. So, at some level the organisers had to consider the possibility of others raising the same objection. Yet when they did rather than trying to rectify the situation or address concerns they blocked people on social media, ignored and in some cases demonised them.  These actions were not only dismissive of the individuals and groupings in question, but of the very notion of democracy, openness, transparency and accountability.

What struck me as strange was the refusal of this committee to explain the rationale behind the poster or account for things like the committee membership. Granted they are not a public body but they are a group who rely on public support, financially and otherwise, so for that reason an explanation was the least people deserved including those who supported the continuation of the march long before the organising committee was formed. People may have not liked or agreed with their rationale, but at least concerns could have been addressed.

The Bloody Sunday March Committee was introduced during a meeting to discuss Bloody Sunday in the Pilots Row Centre on November 28, 2012 without explanation as to how the committee was formed given that some of those named were against the continuation of the march on the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Eamonn McCann who refused to speak on the march platform that year only resigned as chairman from the Bloody Sunday Trust board on 2nd February 2012, less than one week after the march and was later given a place on the committee which was fair enough when you consider Eamonn’s connection to the Bloody Sunday campaign.

However, numerous references have been made recently to the march being used as a vehicle to transport and promote People Before Profit policies. Whether you agree with this or not this is something the organising committee themselves have been deeply critical of Sinn Fein and the Bloody Sunday Trust for.  An organising committee which has called for accountability on numerous occasions from the Bloody Sunday Trust who in contrast publish their committee membership and in fairness to them have accounted for their decisions when questioned. I have had first-hand experience of this having accompanied a representative of the March for Justice Committee (Kate Nash) and former Chief Steward Vincent Coyle to meet with members of the Trust in 2014 over a development proposal.

There can be a certain sadness when history repeats itself for all the wrong reasons. On the evening following last year’s march, I published a blog highlighting how I had been accused by a few of the March for Justice Committee’s supportive rent a mob of trying to destroy the march, this despite my public support for the march.  The rantings of the main mud thrower at that time were not only absolute lies but part of a concerted attempt by this person and a few lackies to vilify and felon set me, and sadly despite exposing them for what they are their efforts did not end there.

This year I once again found myself in the frame, this time accused of trying to destroy and control the march. The individual responsible was an advertised speaker at one of the Bloody Sunday annual events on the subject of punishment attacks and brutal justice. Considering this persons history of online abuse and online Kangaroo courts and character assassination he was the ideal speaker, although he should've been speaking from a perpetrators perspective as I'm sure he would agree violence takes many forms.

Using the online alias ‘Nayland Smith’, Dr Deaglan O’Donaghaile accused Belfast Republican Dee Fennell, (with whom I have no connection, no offence Dee) and I of being main antagonists in alleged attempts to destroy this year’s march.  This as Deaglan’s father Michael was on social media accusing me of having the profile of a member of a Scottish flute band, of being local man Seamus Crawley and any number of other people on social media who would dare to have a different viewpoint to his. Trust me if I had the amount of free time these clowns think I have, I wouldn’t be spending it on social media!

At this point the words of Dr Deaglan spring to mind from an article he penned on ‘punishment attacks’ for the Belfast Telegraph:

“Deliberately engineered to appear vague and its indeterminate quality is intended to cultivate a collective response along the lines of: "Well, he/she must have done something.”

As usual with Dr. Deaglan, he seems to confuse whatever fiction is rattling around in his head for reality. Maybe Dr. Deaglan should heed his own words? After all his words above easily describe his accusatory attacks upon me.

Anyway, back to the main and more important issue.  The current Bloody Sunday march is so far removed from what it was on the 40th anniversary were the issues prevalent in 72 were centre stage on the platform. On that year you had the significance of the 40th anniversary coupled with the sense of optimism that the march was returning to community ownership, today however is very different.

People raising concerns today are being accused of trying to take control of and destroy the march, people are abused for voicing an opinion, or in my case for not even commenting. Yet if people are attacked and accused of having agendas for questioning something how can it be the ‘people’s march' as it has often been referred to? As a note to the march organisers; the people are the march anything else is the mere submission of an 11/1 form to the PSNI/NI Parade’s Commission and the related responsibility. And a further note to the organisers; when three members of your 12-strong committee are being publicly singled out for questioning or criticism over a committee decision the very least you owe them is public support and if you can’t manage that then you may want to rethink the position you have been gifted. Despite my differences with some of those ‘organisers’ I think it is horrendous that they have been left to face the backlash as others sit on the sidelines.

Where this goes now when the dust has settled is something that needs serious consideration and will require open, inclusive discussion without recrimination.  In practice and belief, I have always supported the need for the Bloody Sunday March as it provides a platform to highlight injustice and can serve as a litmus test of public feeling on a range of social issues, one that political parties pay heed to. I might not agree with every issue or cause highlighted however, I support the right of people to promote their cause but common sense is needed in that the main banner must be neutral.

As the saying goes there are bigger fish to fry, this is one march, in one year and no barrier is insurmountable if the will is there. I for one would hope the will is there and the issues of this year can be overcome, however I do share the reservations of many who refuse to be on the streets marching to the tune of one political party.

Friday, 20 October 2017

A Storm (Stormont) In A Teacup

A few days ago here on Starship Norn Iron the evening headline read, ‘power out at Stormont.’  This headline whilst referring to a power cut was one of the most honest headlines to have reached the press here in decades.  The electrical power cut occurred during Storm Ophelia which like most things that come here, bypassed Derry and went to Belfast.

Now, on the subject of bypassing Derry, a few weeks ago the Stormont Assembly met for the first time since the election for a total of 46 minutes.  This wasn’t to update the public on the progress of the ongoing negotiations, or lack of, no, this was to agree a £500 pay increase for themselves.  A £500 raise for MLAs at a time when most things are either cut or capped and days before Universal Credit was to be rolled out in the North starting in Limavady.

Universal Credit is the new combined benefit payment under Welfare Reform (benefit cuts). A method of payment which is proving problematic in pilot areas with many claimants having to wait extended periods for their benefit. The MLAs as with most issues remain relatively silent on this despite calls from charities such as Citizens Advice and the Trussell Trust to halt the further roll out of Universal Credit until the problems currently faced have been remedied. But then some elected representatives seem to do a better job of deflecting and dividing up slush funds than they do in finding solutions to real problems.

If the MLAs were subject to zero-hour contracts in the real sense of the definition they might then raise serious objection to the hardship being imposed upon ordinary working-class people here.  Or if they were forced to live within the confines of a household benefit cap, or wait more than six weeks to obtain the benefits they require to feed their families maybe then they would  understand what people are going through and why people are angry and frustrated. This frustration was witnessed at a recent public consultation in Derry into cuts to front-line health services. Frustration which was later condemned by local politicians.

At the forefront of this condemnation was the DUPs Gary Middleton. The same Gary Middleton who took part in an illegal flag protest on Derry’s peace bridge during the uproar over the union flag at Belfast City Hall.  I wonder if Gary was concerned about anyone feeling intimidated when he took part in his protest on Derry’s Peace Bridge, a so called ‘shared space’? Or is it a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do?’

Next up in the condemnation queue was Sinn Fein’s Karen Mullan.  With Karen relatively new to public life outside of her previous efforts within thecommunity sector she could be forgiven for overlooking Sinn Fein’s keenness to protest in the past.  After all Sinn Fein defended its protests at public policing meetings which had to be abandoned due the disruptive nature of their protest. In response to objections raised about their protests in a statement from Sinn Fein’s Pat Doherty in 2003 he defended the behaviour of protesters who were accused of trying to intimidate people by chanting during the first meeting of the Omagh District Policing Partnership. In his response Doherty stated that the protesters had a ‘legitimate right to protest,’ much like the protesters Karen was quick to condemn.

Then to my surprise we had the mutterings of Mark Durkan SDLP who too condemned the behaviour of protesters which was surprising considering that Mark is the member of a party born of the Civil Rights Movement. A movement which was best known for peaceful, yet vocal non-violent protest. With the SDLP currently focused on the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement now might be an appropriate time for them to revisit the fundamental principles of the movement and to get back in touch with their grassroots. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a wee bit concerned at this
anti-peaceful protest stance being displayed here!!

Today in a statement from People Before Profits MLA Gerry Carroll he expressed agreement over Sinn Fein’s determination to bring forward and Irish Language act at any cost by stating, “Anything less than a fully funded, standalone, Irish Language Act will be considered a sell-out, and rightly so." Gerry then went on to state that he only accepts the average workers wage.  Now with no wish to be dismissive, what Gerry chooses to take from the wage he receives is a matter for himself, his party or if the case may be, his chosen charity. The fact is Gerry like the rest of the MLAs is in receipt of £131.00 per/day. If he was living on less than £10.00 per/day or reliant on food parcels and was accruing debt whilst waiting on his universal credit to be processed I suspect his priorities would quickly change from an Irish language act to the bringing forward of an anti-poverty strategy and lobbying accordingly.  But then an anti-poverty strategy wasn’t a priority for the last assembly so I doubt it will be for this one either given we still await a budget.

Let’s put the latest Stormont deadlock into perspective:

What started with the issue of a botched heating scheme and the literal burning of public money has ended up with more focus being placed on the introduction of an Irish Language Act. This in my opinion represents a major shifting of goal posts and is a potential play to a polarised gallery short of one seat.  Granted, an Irish language act would have its benefits, primarily the protection of an indigenous language, but why it bothers Sinn Fein more now than it did when they held the brief is questionable, particularly with so many other bread and butter issues impacting on people in our society. Surely now in this time of economic despair the primary focus should be addressing poverty which causes so many other problems and severe cuts to front-line services.

The endless deadlock at Stormont is nothing new with these latest negotiations again taking place behind closed doors.  Ask yourself, what good has ever come from backdoor dealing here? The Good Friday Agreement turned out to be a monumental con job. The St Andrews agreement (Annex E) gave MI5 supremacy over policing.  And with the Fresh Start Agreement, devolved welfare powers were handed back to Westminster for the rolling out of welfare reform (benefit cuts).

For the above reasons and in the interests of transparency and accountability I believe that the Stormont politicians should carry out further negotiations in the public arena as where better to show up the intransigence of the DUP if this is indeed the case.  Ultimately, if this mess isn’t sorted soon then we are facing another election or worse, a period of direct rule, where we can rule out both an anti-poverty strategy and an Irish Language Act. The best we’ll get here will be the implementation of more cuts this time with no mitigation or anyone to negotiate on our behalf (outside of the DUP) and the introduction of legislation to whitewash the state’s role in the troubles, as was the plan until interrupted with the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

Ruling by fooling!

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A Vicious Circle. Save our Health Service!

A few days ago, the 5 regional Health and Social Care Trusts in the north published an overview of their plan to make a collective £70 million of budget cuts in this fiscal year. These plans have been put out by the respective Heath Care Trusts for a six-week consultation period at the end of which cuts will be made accordingly. The Western Trust which covers Derry, Strabane, Omagh, a proportion of the Causeway coast and Glensborough Council area has outlined its proposal to cut the budget by £12.5million.

In June of this year senior members of the British Medical Association accused Theresa May and British Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, of “consciously” creating a crisis within hospitals “to distract the public from an underfunded service under severe and intense strain” this whilst scapegoating doctors and medical staff. This was raised at the union’s annual representative meeting in Bournemouth, where a motion to challenge government plans was passed. A selling point of the motion came as it emerged that the Government has plans to sell off an NHS staffing agency which saves the health service £70m a year. Oh the Irony, here we have the sale of an asset which saves the British government £70m whilst at the same time in the north health care budgets are to be cut by the same amount. One can only marvel at the logic of these people and how they come to their decisions!

Ask yourself why would any government want to sell off an asset which saves the health service money when other areas are trying to cut down on the number of non-NHS agency staff. In my view this is about making the system unworkable and speeding up the process of privatisation? But then again these are the same Tories who sold off Plasma Resources UK an NHS publicly owned company to Bain Capital a private equity firm set up by American Politician Mitt Romney for £230 million pounds. The company was then sold on 3 years later to a Chinese company for £820 million pounds.

Locally within the Western Trust’s savings plan there is a proposed reduction to the number of non-NHS locums, nursing agency and agency Social work staff. This is expected to save the Western trust an estimated £1.6m. The problem is, this cut will also mean the loss of approximately 30 beds/care spaces across medical and care of the elderly wards at a time when hospitals are already stretched to capacity.

In addition to this is the proposed cut of £1.16m to domiciliary care totaling 275 packages and the loss of 8-10 nursing home places which will mean: The consolidation of care homes, less respite care and less availability for people requiring healthcare treatment and care packages. As this move will also see ‘bed blocking’ with patients being kept in hospital for longer periods in the absence of a care home place or a heath care package which will lead to increased hospital costs and even longer waiting lists. As I see it he above plans are nonsensical and will not prove beneficial or cost effective in the long term. Privatisation by making the system unworkable?

The above announcement follows on from a not so well publicised plan by the Department of Health entitled ‘Reshaping Stroke Services’. Stroke is the main cause of adult disability in the UK. 'The fourth largest cause of death and two thirds of those who survive stroke have a life changing disability'. This consultation is due to close on September 15, 2017 and whilst packaged under the guise of ‘reshaping stroke services’ this involves cuts to and the relocation of stroke services in the north.

Five of the proposals outlined in the consultation document include the words ‘an appropriate number’ which would seem to be the new term given to the reduction of services. When treating a stroke timing is paramount with regards to assessment for the clot busting treatment known as thrombolysis. Yet proposal 2 suggests providing ‘assessment for clot busting treatment thrombolysis on an appropriate number of sites’.

Staff members and a patient from the Stroke unit in Altnagelvin hospital here in Derry have contacted me concerned that the reduction in stroke services will impact on the service currently available at Altnagelvin. There is a strong suspicion among staff that the ‘thrombolysis’ treatment will be relocated to either Enniskillen or Belfast which will cause difficulties not only for staff but for patients required to travel a huge distance to avail of this treatment, with time of the essence in these cases. Somebody should maybe take time to remind the department of health that the ‘T’ in the F.A.S.T. acronym stands for time and not travel. As with the above, these plans need to be opposed in the strongest possible terms by all right-thinking people.

Now on a related but separate note. With many illnesses when people leave hospital they are required to avail of alternative supported accommodation or floating support. These services are funded through the Supporting People Scheme which is administered through the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. This scheme provides funding for a range of support services to assist vulnerable people to live independently in their community.

In Derry alone there are 59 sheltered and supported Housing schemes and 9 floating support services. Figures published by NICVA in 2015 stated that Supporting People saves the public purse £125.05 million pounds per annum. In real terms, this means that for every £1 spent on Supporting People, there is a £1.90 saving. Despite this the core budget of the scheme which has been frozen for the past 10 years is set to be cut by a further £3million which will impact on existing services. How this can be justified given the money saved by the scheme is anyone’s guess, but proof that everything is being slashed irrespective of the benefits to people or ‘government’.

With so much focus on cuts we must be practical about where additional money could be secured to fund health services, outside of saddling our great grandchildren with more Private Finance Initiative debt. And very simply this could have been achieved through not replacing the trident nuclear weapons system which will cost an estimated £205 billion. How any elected representative could justify such an obscene amount of money for such obscene weapons of mass destruction whilst people cannot get adequate health care is beyond rational comprehension. And when we look for answers locally we need look no further than the 5 DUP MP’s and two former UUP MP’s who voted for these nuclear weapons.

This image which was shared yesterday by the Derry Trade Union Council shows the wages paid to
MLA’s from March of this year. A scandalous amount of money when you consider that these elected representatives have not been doing their job . Moreover, these people are now sitting back as plans being made by Civil Servants and plans of old lack common sense, foresight and long-term planning.

Central to this problem is that the 2 main partners in ‘government’ have no joined-up approach and are more focused on representing their individual political positions than doing what is right for people. My question to those MLA's is, with Supporting People Services being cut, care home places set to be reduced and the number of hospital beds being cut, as well as cuts to domiciliary care and stroke services, what are people supposed to do and where are they supposed to go when these plans eventually clash and conflict?  And more importantly, what are you going to do about it?

Sadly, this is more than likely the tip of the iceberg and with a lack of governance here we are forced to look in the direction of Westminster and if you think of the Health Service you have to think about Tory Health Minister Jeremy Hunt who recently crossed swords with Professor Stephen Hawking, when Professor Hawking stated that Hunt was cherry picking evidence to support his policies. Now I think when it comes down to it I’ll stand with Professor Hawking a proud supporter of the NHS, as opposed to Mr Hunt, a member of party decimating the NHS, well that coupled with the fact Hawking is a genius and Hunt is a Tory minister! lol

Late last year the NHS saved my father’s life, the treatment and care he received from every person he came into contact with was second to none. So, if you want to know why I feel so angry about the cuts to services you now do, and if you like me have had a loved one saved by the NHS you will share my despair for what passes for governance here coupled with the Tory led privatisation of the NHS.