Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Don't Be Offended!

The announcement that comedian Frankie Boyle is scheduled to appear as a main act at this years Belfast Feile has caused considerable controversy. This follows jokes made by Boyle five years ago about children with Downs syndrome. Whilst his sense of humour is not to my taste and quite outlandish, I question if attempts to ban him from the festival are really the answer?

If yes then could this action open 'offense' type flood gates leaving all events open to similar scrutiny? Boyle's Jokes are not to everyone's taste but then the same could be said for a lot of comedy. Two films in particular spring to mind; 'Me, Myself and Irene' and 'Something about Mary'. 'Me Myself and Irene' presents a distorted view of Schizophrenia and 'Something about Mary' contains distasteful references to adults with learning disabilities, yet both were big films.

Having taken time to look at the Feile schedule I have found that all of the events have the potential to cause offense to either individuals or groups within the community. Mark Almond, former lead singer of the eighties band Soft Cell and a self professed member of the Church of Satan is due to perform at the festival. Surely his appearance could send out the wrong message or it could just be a case of better the devil you know! Then we have the music of provocative Irish rebel band the Wolfetones. Is this really an appropriate choice in this a post-conflict and multi-cultural society? After all the Wolfetones chant what some consider offensive and what others can be arrested for saying. Whilst I have no wish to dismiss the depth of feeling over the Boyle issue the common sense side of me questions where this will end?

Surely an easier option for objectors would be to encourage people to avoid the show, as from experience I find this type of attention can often spark curiosity and lead to increased attendance as has happened. This also happened with the Reduced Shakespeare Company production ' The Bible' which had been banned after being branded 'blasphemous' by Newtownabbey Borough Council. When the decision was reversed the tickets sold better than had been initially expected, another event that sold out after people got their backs up was the Belfast appearance by George Galloway.

Two people who I regard as two of the biggest comedians in the North, the PSNI Chief Constable and the Deputy First Minister will be performing at the festival. I wouldn't go and see them because no doubt I would take offense at something they would say, but I do respect the right of others to waste their time and money going to see them, that's personal choice.

From the Life of Brian, to the Sex Pistols 'god save the queen' there will always be something that causes offense. The bottom line is that if I think something is going to offend me I won't go to it, why would I want to go to or draw attention to something that may cause me distress? 

Essentially, exercise personal choice, and allow others to exercise theirs.

I will now leave you with the words of a friend...... “To all those who have got really hot under the collar about Frankie Boyle. Ask yourself this. If you were disabled who would make your blood boil? A comedian who tells a joke about your disability? Or the politician who claims to be defending your rights whilst making plans to cut the benefits you depend on that makes your life more bearable?”

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Judge, Jury and Educationers.

Over a period of ten months I have been supporting a family who have been involved in a situation that has exposed the evasive and unprofessional nature of a school board of a Catholic Maintained school.

What began last September as a relatively small issue escalated to a point of complexity during which this school board displayed a level of contempt worthy of any self respecting fascist. The scenario below involves a post-primary school, a child, his family, a school principal, the school board and the Catholic Council for Maintained schools (CCMS). As you read this keep in mind that the Catholic Council for Maintained Schools have a responsibility under legislation to ensure the effective management of Catholic schools by Boards of Governors.

To give you an idea of what went on.......

In Sept 2014 a child's right to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and thought were breached when attempts were made to coerce him into signing the publicly vaunted 'Peace scroll'. The 'peace scroll' is an attempt by the Rev David Latimer to create a world record. Signing this scroll should have been optional due to it's non-curricular and political nature, however for one child a refusal to sign left him feeling singled out, belittled and devalued. During this incident the child was told by a teacher that he would be 'the only the child in the north not to have signed' and was further questioned as to whether his refusal was sectarian in nature. When this child reacted by using a word the school have termed inappropriate the school decided to punish him. In attempting to punish the child the school principal refused to look at the situation in the broader context and imposed two after school detentions. This was deemed justifiable under the school's blanket policy which makes no provision for contributing factors or for the individual circumstances of each case.

Both the School and CCMS deny that any breach of this child's rights took place.

This entire situation overshadowed the child's GCSE year with the child adamant he would not be punished for challenging what he viewed as “hypocrisy”. The child based his decision not to sign the scroll on Rev Latimer's service in the British Army and with him being stationed in Afghanistan. The child also raised concerns over what he views as Reverend Latimer's “selective” approach to local human rights issues.

When the parents questioned the school principal over his decision to impose two detentions and what circumstances if any he had taken into consideration the Principal immediately cut off communication with them and escalated the issue to stage 4 of the school's complaints procedure. Stage 4 of the school's complaints procedure requires a written submission to the Chair of the school board from parents.

A sub-committee of the board who later claimed to have thoroughly investigated the case and the parents complaint upheld the Principals decision. It's worth keeping in mind that the parents had not lodged any formal compliant at this time. When they raised this matter with the chair of the sub-committee he explained that their written correspondence to the principal was used to formulate a complaint on their behalf. This did two things:

1.It denied the parents the right to decide on the scope and nature of their complaint.

2.It was in breach of stage 4 of the school's complaints procedure which requires a written submission from parents.
The school and CCMS considered these actions to be reasonable.

In recent days the child's parents have learned that this sub-committee kept no minutes of their deliberations. This might explain why the sub-committee wrote to the parents using plain paper as opposed to official school stationary as is normal practice. The school acknowledged the need to use school stationary yet failed to reveal that they kept no minutes or record of the meeting. CCMS said this would not happen again. This should never have happened to start with.

When the parents later submitted their own complaint in line with stage 4 of the school policy the board completely ignored it. When the school were asked to produce a copy of the complaint formulated and thoroughly investigated by the sub-committee they could not do it as no minutes or record had been kept, therefore no complaint existed. This in itself presents the following questions.....Did any such meeting ever take place? And is the Principals word gospel?

What is extremely concerning is the school board's Chairperson had the audacity to accuse the parents of being dismissive of the the efforts of the sub-committee overlooking that he himself had failed in his responsibility under the Department of Education guidelines which states, that the chairperson has responsibility for all meetings and must ensure that minutes of ALL meetings are retained.  
 CCMS have refused to acknowledge the chairperson's failure in this.

The board also ignored instructions from the Information Commissioner to fulfil their obligations under Freedom of Information Legislation and to provide clarification on documents requested by the parents. The school claimed to have fulfilled their role. CCMS merely acknowledged that the school had not.

The parents concerned about the impact this was having on their child took their child to a counsellor. They then requested to meet with the child's form teacher to discuss the counsellors report with her. However this meeting was stopped from proceeding by the Board of Governors on the basis of 'the ongoing issue with the board'.
The school lied claiming the parents had wanted to discuss the detentions and not the counsellors report whereas CCMS acknowledged this but did not address it despite being asked if this was common practice.


Subsequently the parents were further refused the right to have representation for their child during the one and only meeting they were afforded with the school board, a meeting which came nine months after the incident. When arriving at the school the parents were told that school policy does not provide for third party input, as such the meeting did not take place with the parents refusing to enter a meeting without a representative. Following this the parents and their legal representative ( a retired human rights lawyer with over 40 years experience) were escorted from school premises, this refusal and exit was witnessed by an elected representative for the area. This treatment contravenes guidance by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission which has been published by the Department of Education. When this was pointed out to the board Chairperson he merely replied “I don't accept that”.  
CCMS said the school board acted in accordance with school policy.

It is worth noting that in a recent question submitted to the Education Minister he had this to say: The Board of Governors manages each Catholic Maintained School on a day to day basis in line with a Scheme of Management provided by CCMS. The Council may challenge a school to raise its standards through the Board of Governors and may also direct a Board on the implementation of legislation and policies.

Finally, a school board committee consisting of the chair, vice chair, parent representative, local priest and the community representative upheld the findings of the sub-committee. Which effectively meant upholding the outcome of an investigation of which there is no minutes or record.  
Yet the school claim to have dealt with the entire situation adequately with CCMS describing their handling as reasonable.

In addition to the final response the child's parents received a letter from the board Secretary/School Principal informing them that their child would be expected to fulfill two after school detentions should he be offered a place in sixth form. With the above factors in mind ask yourself, is this in the best interests of this child or for the benefit of incompetent, unprofessional and egotistical autocrats?

In an attempt to bring some common sense to the proceedings the child's parents tried to meet with the parent representative of the board, yet for the duration of this entire fiasco they were refused any such meeting despite multiple requests being submitted.

As this comes to an end, a matter that should have never made it outside of the school assembly hall from the outset has exposed the school board in question as being ineffective, unprofessional, non transparent and unaccountable. It has exposed CCMS a group acting under the wing of the Catholic Church as not having learned from previous incidents when the Church has closed ranks and have attempted to silence people. Both the school and CCMS have tried to tell the parents to go away, I can tell you this is a red rag to a bull. CCMS are a publicly funded body and the days of dictating to anyone are over as to quote the parents this is “Northern Ireland not North Korea”.

The parents would acknowledge a comment from the Bishop of Derry, Rev. McKeown who replied to them after they wrote to him. Bishop McKeown who has knowledge in these matters agreed with the parents that a common sense approach should have been taken and expressed concern that such a small matter had used up so much time and energy. In contrast, Bishop John McAreavey the Chairperson of CCMS has not even had the decency to acknowledge or respond to two separate letters the parents of the child in question sent to him.

As for Rev Latimer he was contacted by the parents, he promised to address the situation and return to them, yet to date has done neither.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Devil Looks After His Own!

A few days ago the Tory millionaire cabinet announced plans to change the definition of child poverty. This followed an announcement from Ian Duncan Smith to scrap the definition put forward by the Labour government in 2010. The current definition covers all children living in a household with an income below 60% of the UK's average. The move to change the definition followed a report describing child poverty levels in the UK as "unacceptably high".

In a bid to address this, predictably, the Tories announced plans to change the definition. This move will allow them to manipulate the poverty figures to their advantage, as has been shown to be done with their workfare type schemes which too assist with choreographing the unemployment figures. Ian Duncan Smith then went on to say that their intention is to" to eradicate child poverty” which is certainly a world away from merely changing the definition. Saying that I'm surprised they're just not enacting legislation to have the definition of the word poverty removed from the English dictionary, then again I wouldn't want to give them ideas.

Just yesterday the Tories revealed their budget plan or as they have termed it the "new

contract". This budget or 'contract' is clearly targeted at public sector workers, the poor, the vulnerable, the young and much to my surprise the unborn. I have to say the term 'new contract' is a bad move on their part as a brief study of contract law taught me that for a contract to be binding an agreement must be entered into voluntarily by two or more parties. Yet in this case I doubt those who will be most affected by the savagery of yesterday's budget will have agreed to enter into any such contract. Although a mandate gives a party/individual the authority to represent it does not give them permission to enter anyone into a contract without their consideration or consent. What is even more concerning is that the words 'new contract' are not a million miles away from 'new covenant'. Whilst these old 'Etonians' are known for their delusions of grandeur I doubt even they have reached deity status yet. So to be clear this is no contract, this has not been agreed, this is the poor being made suffer whilst the rich get away with not paying their fair share.

With this 'new contract' the millionaire cabinet have overlooked a few crucial things; From 2017 if a third child is born into a low income family that child is to be denied support in terms of tax credits. Surely the equality commission will have something to say with the Tories now attempting to control the birthrate. Additionally I can't help but wonder what will happen when a family have triplets, who decides which child is to be denied support?

Secondly with plans to deny under 21's housing benefit where are young people supposed to live and could this too be considered discriminatory? But hey, what's a bit of illegality to the Tories? In June 2015 'A Conservative-controlled council unlawfully blocked a family made homeless by the housing benefit cap from getting social housing. The High Court said Westminster City Council was wrong to bar the anonymous family from applying for a home in the borough where they lived.'

Thirdly even with a proposed rise in the national living wage by 2020 low earners are still going to worse off with cuts to tax credits. It must be noted that this 'new contract' involves a £4.5 billion cut to tax credits, as part of cuts to welfare totalling £12 billion.

Just compare that £12 billion of cuts to the vulnerable to the £93 billion businesses got last year in subsidies, grants and tax breaks. They say the devil looks after his own, I reckon never a truer word was spoken. And on the subject of the devil looking after his own the NI assembly will administer the Tory cuts, despite hollow rhetoric and meaningless protestations.

Having just arrived home from a what was once the Strabane workhouse I can't help but wonder how far the Tories are prepared to go. Lest we forget this is the same party who under the control of John Russell in the 1840's oversaw the deaths of over one million people in Ireland during the famine or in truthful terms what was the genocide of the indigenous population.

During this period the British government spent an estimated £9.5million on 'famine' relief which was given on a mostly loan basis whilst spending £69.3 million on the Crimean war. In addition to this in 1894 in a report signed by MPs Thomas Sexton, Henry Blake and Henry Slattery it was found that for over 90 years Ireland had suffered over-taxation to the sum of approximately £3million per year. Despite this no steps were taken to pay the money back.

Maybe now would be a good time to pay it back... that's an estimated £270 million and interest (wonga style) dating back 121 years.

By the way the term Tory is the Gaelic word for "bandit" or "outlaw".

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Justice Is More Than A Word.

My husbands mother would often speak fondly of a lady (now deceased) named Mary-Anne Deery.. I'm told that Mary-Anne who lived in the Bogside area of Derry was known for her strength of character and great sense of humour. However for Anne she is best remembered for the words she spoke aloud during a religious service and what should have been silent reflection, those words were “God Bless our wee Manus”. Manus was the son she lost on May 19th 1972 when he was murdered in Derry's Bogside by a member of the British Army whilst eating chips with his friends. It was on this day that Manus, a boy with his whole life ahead of him, received his first pay packet (wage).

Following his death it was claimed that there was a gunman spotted in the vicinity at the time of the shooting. This was further claimed in statements given by the soldiers responsible and was accepted without challenge during the coroners inquest in 1973. Here it was ruled that Manus had died as a consequence of lacerations to his brain caused by fragments from a tracer bullet of the type fired from a NATO issue 7.62 rifle. In this case the jury returned an open verdict which happens when the occurrence of a death is suspicious, yet no specific cause has been attributed.

In terms of a criminal investigation it will come as no surprise to learn that the RUC failed to carry out a thorough investigation into the Manus's death. The extent of their investigation consisted of a file given to the DPP containing statements from Manus’ mother, “Margaret Anne Deery”, and from his cousin “James Deery”. Manus's Mother was called Mary Anne and he had no cousin called James. Witnesses who participated in the inquest the following year spoke of how they had not been questioned by the RUC. In addition to this the only crime scene photographs had been taken from an observation post on Derry's city walls.

After the above investigation the family were informed that:

"The evidence and information reported together with the recommendations of police was carefully considered by experienced lawyers in this Department. It was concluded that the evidence available was insufficient to afford a reasonable prospect of conviction of any identifiable individual, and accordingly, a direction for no prosecution was issued on 9 November 1972."

In 2001 nine families including the Deery family challenged the then Secretary of State Dr John Reid and the Director of Public Prosecutions over their failure to prosecute, hold inquests and independent inquiries into the deaths of their loved ones. This followed a ruling that the state had violated article 2 (The Right to Life) of the European Convention on Human Rights over their failure to hold independent inquests, inquiries and to prosecute.

Eleven years later, in June 2012, the North's Attorney General ordered a new inquest into Manus's death under the Coroners’ Act. Sadly, in the November of the same year Manus's case was suspended with 14 others by the senior coroner for Northern Ireland Mr John Leckey.

In July 2013 the Deery family were made aware of a document from 1972. This document advised the British government that Manus's killing was “unjustified in law.” It was said that the document written by legal advisers to the British government proves that the young boy was murdered. The document discovered in the National Archives at Kew, stated that the shooting of Manus Deery;

was in contravention of the Yellow Card and unjustified in law, irrespective of whether Deery was carrying a firearm.”

The yellow card was a standard that British soldiers were required to adhere in N.Ireland. Within these parameters lethal force should only have been used as a last resort and when there was a risk to life.

More recently, in January of this year the question on whether to permit a jury  in Manus's inquest was raised causing considerable controversy. Shortly after the coroner Mr John Leckey left on sick leave and is expected to retire in the near future. Despite calls from the Mr Leckey to find replacement the Department of Justice have failed to appoint a successor.

Just yesterday it was announced that the only survivor of the Kingsmill Massacre Alan Black has threatened legal action over the department of justices' failure to appoint a new coroner to hear a fresh inquest into the murders of the Kingsmill victims. In 1976 eleven textile workers were lined up against their mini bus and shot on their way home from work, ten of the men died. The finger of blame was pointed at the IRA, who never claimed responsibility.

Speaking yesterday Alan Black had this to say:

Over the years since we got involved, it has been one obstacle put in our way after the other and all coming from the Department of Justice,” …..“They knew for two years that John Leckey was going to go. David Ford wants to kick us into the long grass again, we are not going, We’ll do whatever’s necessary with the legal people and hopefully get a result then.”

It would seem that those fighting for justice spend more time overcoming hurdles with each hurdle higher than the last. How can their be a level playing field when the state keep moving the goal posts to protect their own forces, so far as to prevaricate on the murder of a fifteen year old boy.

So much for the promises of the Good Friday Agreement when we were promised an era in which “justice would be done and seen to be done” as well as measures compatible with a “normal and peaceful society”.