Saturday, 15 October 2016

Protect Life 2: A Strategy for Suicide Prevention in the North of Ireland

Something which has touched so many people across this city is the scourge of suicide and through this platform I've highlighted this a number of times. I've also used this diary to show some of the proactive steps that have been taken to promote positive mental health & wellbeing & suicide prevention. A recent event for World Suicide Prevention Day was the 'Empty Chair' when community activists took to the centre of Derry and distributed thousands of pieces of information to the public.

Everyone has mental health needs whether they have a diagnosis of mental illness and during the course of any year 1 in four people will suffer from a mental illness, yet sadly not everyone gets the support they need. There are a range of factors that influence our mental health & wellbeing and acccording to the Protect Life 2 document, 'Suicide rates in the most deprived areas here are three times higher than in the least deprived; for self harm that differential is four times higher. And men continue to be three times more likely to die by suicide than women.' It's time for Stormont to step up to the plate!

The 2003-2008 Promoting Mental Health Strategy & Action plan published by the DHSSPSNI had a number of specific actions relating to Prisons/the justice system, including – Action 12: 'The Prison service will provide access to appropriate services to those in prison with recognised mental health problems.' And Action 28: 'The prison services will ensure that all remand and sentenced prisoners continue to receive initial and ongoing monitoring of their mental health & assessment of the risk of suicide.'

The recent cases of Sean Lynch and Paddy Kelly immediately come to mind. Sean who whilst very unwell self harmed and blinded himself and Paddy Kelly a prisoner with a known history of self harm who asked not to keep his own medications overdosed on stockpiled medications and passed away. Both men were prisoners in Maghaberry prison.

Two days ago Steven Davis, the Governor of Maghaberry Gaol said that 'prisons are not suitable for dealing with people with serious mental health problems.' After numerous prisoners have completed suicide and with over 25% of the 900 men held in Maghaberry said to have severe mental health issues I don't think I'm being unkind when I say Mr Davis' statement is too little too late.

The Stormont Assembly has now published a consultation on their proposed strategy to address suicide & self harm. So we now have the opportunity to have an input to tell those in positions of power what is needed, and when we tell them what is needed and they publish their final strategy we can hold them to account if they continue to fail vulnerable people who need support.

The Protect Life 2 strategy consultation is open until November 4th 2016 and I would urge everyone who can make a positive contribution to take this opportunity.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Dialogue Not Deflection

Let me take you out of Derry tonight and into the heart of North Belfast to a place called Ardoyne. Ardoyne has been at the centre of a lot of controversy recently following negotiations to dismantle the Twadell Protest Camp. The Protest Camp was set up in July 2013 in opposition to a parade ruling to restrict an Orange Order Parade. What was effectively an act of trespass on the part of the protesters ended up costing the taxpayer a staggering £21 million to police, with the the camp located close to the nationalist Ardoyne area. Yes folks you've read that correctly, at a time when health, education and welfare budgets were being slashed, £21 million was spent on policing an illegal camp. Welcome to Starship Norn Iron!

A few weeks ago it emerged that negotiations to dismantle the Twadell camp were not only ongoing but at an advanced stage. Key to these negotiations were two gentlemen in particular, the Reverend Harold Goode and Derry 'business' man Jim Roddy MBE. The Reverend Harold Goode is well known for his input in situations of a sensitive nature but I fail to see where Jim Roddy fitted here, in fact I'm equally curious as to what line of business he is in.

Let me clarify, it is not my intention to dismiss Jim's efforts, on the contrary, his temerity is to be commended. With the removal of the Twadell camp marking the first phase of a possible many Jim now has the task of engaging with residents who are clearly unhappy with the process and the outcome of the negotiations both he and others played a pivotal role in. So on that note, Good Luck Jim!

The angry scenes in Ardoyne last weekend dominated news headlines and singled out one Ardoyne resident in particular, GARC spokesperson Dee Fennell. In a spate of unbalanced media reporting Fennell has been heavily criticised and labelled a bully for his forthright manner towards local clergy member Fr Gary Donegan. What some press outlets have failed to show or mention is that Fennell's input came about as he tried to diffuse a potentially volatile situation involving irate residents. This is clear from the unedited version of video footage which appeared online. In the 'edited version' the media didn't show Mr. Fennell pointing out to Fr Donegan how local residents were unable to go about their business, and how the allowing of this parade was not welcomed by a lot of people in the area. As someone who has crossed swords (online debate) with Fennell  in the past and with no axe to grind either way I feel that Fennell is being used as a scapegoat to deflect from a deal which excluded residents from a process they should have been central to. Something which has has been confirmed by one Ardoyne resident I am friendly with. Not much of a fresh start!

As the dust settled I was surprised to read that Father Gary Donegan stated that the 'confrontation with protesters' on Saturday reminded him of the Holy Cross dispute. Oddly, I don't remember any news reports from Saturday showing people throwing bombs at children trying to get to school. It would seem that Father Gary is playing his part in trying to move the focus away from the issue of contention residents face, which is they don't want a loyalist parade in their area. If you're reading this Father Donegan I would suggest a period of reflection followed by a concerted effort to engage with your flock, and this time the entire flock. After all if I'm not mistaken does Catholic not mean universal and all encompassing because if I'm right then helping exclude residents from the process wasn't very Catholic of you.

To understand why people are feeling angry particularly those who were prevented from going about their daily business on Saturday those quick to condemn them should have a cursory glance at Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This article provides for the right to have your family, private life, home and correspondence respected. Article 9 provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, so those parishioners of Father Donegan's who couldn't attend his church, in their own area, or who are being lambasted by the media for expressing an opinion are having their human rights violated. But hey why let facts get in the way of deflection!

One of the things that saddened me most this weekend was the scene with the older man who was clearly frustrated by the way he and his community had been treated, a man who has since been described as a heckler. Where was Father Gary's Christianity as he stood glaring at this older man? It seemed that Father Donegan was incapable of understanding that this man was upset and moreover, incapable of responding to him. This was a long way from when the same Father Donegan was interviewed for an article called 'Faith on the Interface' when he said “the fact that his parishioners did not have to endure the return parade reduced tension on the Catholic side.” When my husband watched Fr Gary's performance on the news, he said “if ever there was a poster boy for atheism it's yer man there.” If the picture had of been in black & white I would've guessed it was back at the time when no one could say boo to man of the cloth, and just look where that ended up!

As people watch the biased news reports singling out individuals as bullies or hecklers maybe they should look at what the people of Ardoyne have had to endure. There were nearly 100 lives lost in the parish during the troubles and there was the Holy Cross issue and the attacks on School children. Added to this has been the violence meted out against residents during successive marching seasons. Violence such as a leading loyalist ramming his car into a crowd of people injuring a 13 year old girl, and those incidents barely scratch the surface of what they have endured.

The reality now for the people of Ardoyne is that a precedent has been set for the return leg of the Orange Order march. As it stands residents are now in limbo as to what happens next and unsure of what they will have to 'endure'. To address this there needs to be immediate dialogue between the negotiators and local residents, particularly those initially excluded from the process,. With this I do hope a broad consensus can be reached. I would also hope that those buying into the outcome of the alleged consultation on the issue consider that the views of community groups, most of which are politically weighted, are no substitute for the views and input of the people who live in the area. The people who will have to endure the aftermath of each deal imposed upon them and the precedent it sets.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Three Simple Words

Every year on September 10th people across the world mark World Suicide Prevention Day. This year people from across Derry took part in an initiative to highlight mental health, wellbeing and suicide prevention.

This initiative, the 'empty chair' was to use visual art signifying the loss of a friend or loved one as a focal point to attract people's attention. The origin of the empty chair is that people often have a favourite chair at home where they usually sit. When we lose a loved one, a poignant reminder of the loss is their empty chair. The empty chair in the Guildhall Square and in different areas of the city were significant for a number of reasons; they are in memory of those who have lost their lives to suicide, they are to remind those who have lost friends and loved ones to suicide that they are in our thoughts and to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing.

A key element of this initiative was to encourage discussion about mental health and suicide prevention. Last Saturday morning staff from Niamh (the Northern Ireland Association for Mental Health), from Time 2 Choose Mindcrafts and community activists such as myself placed 'empty chairs' at locations around the city. These empty chairs were painted white and had laminates attached to them giving information on the project and links to online mental health & wellbeing resources.
Some of the team for WSPD16

At 12 noon we unveiled a large ‘empty chair’ in the Guildhall Square in Derry. And for the next few hours we distributed thousands of leaflets and information on mental health and wellbeing to people throughout the city centre. We also provided the opportunity for people to leave their own personal message on the chair.

The event was an unqualified success and was welcomed by people who had lost loved ones and friends to suicide. One woman who had lost her grandson had heard about the event on the radio the day before and wanted to find out what it was about. This woman told one of the people giving out the information that she was delighted to see something taking place, she felt it was cathartic to be able to talk about suicide, that people shy away from the conversation, and that having lost someone to have someone listen to her story made the difference.

Some of the conversations taking place, and the messages left on the 'empty chair' would've broken your heart, I can't find any other way to describe them. One of the most important conversations that actually took place that day was the conversation between one of the people involved in handing out information and a man in crisis near the river. Thankfully this man was brought to safety away from the rivers edge.

The positivity that stemmed from this event cannot be underestimated. In the week that past since I have heard from quite a few people who saw the chairs and want to get involved next year.

In this blog I have touched on many of the social and economic factors that can impact on mental health & wellbeing and I have also acknowledged the amazing work of organisations such as Foyle Search & Rescue. I would also urge people to take time to read a publication authored by Iris Elliot of the Mental Health Foundation on Poverty & Mental Health. As a city rife with poverty and the effects of poverty this is essential reading. This document should be emailed to each politician along with the recently published Joseph Rowntree Foundation strategy to end poverty.

Mental health and wellbeing is not something that should be or needs to be left solely in the hands of organisations or groups, it also goes beyond initiatives such as ours and into the hands of every person. Mental health & wellbeing begins with each of us, from looking after our own wellbeing to supporting others to look after theirs. That support could be simply listening to someone, it could be directing someone to an organisation such as the Samaritans (who are currently looking for volunteers).

Figures published by the International Association for Suicide Prevention each year, show over 800,000 people die from suicide; this roughly corresponds to one death every 40 seconds.
In the north of Ireland in 2014 there were 268 lives lost to suicide and although this was a welcome reduction on the previous figure published by the Office of National Statistics more work needs to be done.

It is estimated that during 2012 for each adult who died of suicide there were over 20 others who made suicide attempts. We want people who are despairing and thinking about suicide to know that there is help available. Stigma can be a barrier to people seeking help, but it is essential that people seek help. Speaking to a friend, family member or your GP can help people begin their recovery journey enabling them to realise their full potential.

It is important for people to know that support is available and that we need to encourage people to talk about mental health to break down the stigma surrounding it. When people think about mental health they often shy away from the subject. We need to start having a conversation about mental health & wellbeing and it can start with three simple words.

 How are you?


Saturday, 3 September 2016

Open Letter to Secretary of State re Tony Taylor

 Dear Mr Brokenshire

I am writing to you in your role as British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I wish to register my concern over the ongoing incarceration of Derry man Tony Taylor. As I am sure you are aware Tony Taylor was arrested whilst on a shopping trip in Derry with his family on March 10th of this year. From there he was taken to Maghaberry Prison where he continues to be held on the signature of your predecessor Theresa Villiers, now perpetuated by yourself. This despite it being found that Ms Villiers acted unlawfully with her initial instruction found to be in contravention of Article 28(2)(a) and (b) of the Criminal Justice (NI) Order (2008).

A core principle of natural justice is the right to know the case against you so as to build a legal defence and challenge any charges you face, however in the case of Tony Taylor, Tony is not facing charges. Administrative Detention and Closed Material Proceedings nullify this right as well as the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time frame. These procedures may meet the minimum standards required by article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights but they are not and cannot be objectively fair as has been acknowledged by senior members of the British Judiciary. Moreover meeting the minimum standards and the minimum standards being regarded as acceptable by the wider population are two different things, keeping in mind that everything Hitler did in Germany met their legal standards.

As a purported peaceful and progressive society it is sad to see methods synonymous with the period defined as the 'troubles' re-employed with Tony's administrative detention viewed by many as internment without trial. Internment/administrative detention has been used in the North in every decade of the Stormont regime, and whilst the name has changed the fundamental fact that people are still being denied their liberty in the absence of due process cannot be disputed.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which received the overwhelming support of the people on this island promised us a 'new beginning', an 'era in which justice would be done and be seen to be done' as well as 'measures compatible with a normal and peaceful society'. I put to you Mr Brokenshire that administrative detention and closed material proceedings have no place in any normal and peaceful society. With this I believe the treatment of Tony Taylor to be an affront to any notion of democracy and in breach of the promises laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. Whilst there have been subsequent agreements these agreements like yourself did not receive public endorsement here.

And on the subject of endorsement have you given any consideration as to how the treatment of Tony Taylor will impinge on proposals to deal with the past? Last year Nationalist politicians raised concerns over your veto on disclosure when draft clauses linked to legacy aspects of the Stormont House Agreement were leaked to the public. Whilst their concerns were voiced at a late stage their points were none the less valid and are more valid today with your ability to detain a man with neither charge, trial nor sufficient explanation. In simple terms if you will not disclose why Tony Taylor is being denied his liberty then how are we expected to believe that you will disclose information on the state's role in the troubles here?

In closing, if you are genuine about dealing with the past then I would suggest the immediate cessation of administrative detention and that Tony Taylor be afforded due process or released to his family immediately. As Secretary of State you cannot claim to be keen to deal with the past whilst utilising mechanisms synonymous with the past, otherwise what is past is prologue.

Yours Sincerely
Pauline Mellon

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Cool Your Jets!

With no pun intended things have been quite heated in Derry recently both before and after the Bogside Bonfire. So much so that Johnathan Powell (British Peace Negotiator) was last reported heading for hills. And could you blame him with some politicians hotter under the collar than those who attended the bonfire.

Bonfires like them or loathe them are a recognised tradition. As such some city councils operate a bonfire management scheme to ensure that these are family friendly and safe events. Unfortunately our council area appears to have a two tier system of bonfire management. As the young people in the Bogside faced recrimination, they were aware that in the Fountain Estate overlooking where they live was another bonfire, one that did not see the same level of controversy. But then this is no doubt down to good community leadership in that area..

Talks about the bonfire broke down when to put it as simply as possible the young people disengaged feeling dictated to. With little leadership or compromise being provided by our so called civic and political leaders local young people later lit the bonfire at the bottom of the City flyover, and with the controversy surrounding this action the bonfire was attended by more people than in previous years.

The burning of Sinn Fein election boards has sparked a lot anger particularly amongst party members and supporters. Whilst I disagree with burning images reaction to this from Sinn Fein party members has been astounding. To understand this we need to question why young people feel so marginalised that they will burn election posters, the burning of British flags is nothing new. However when we question the actions of the young people we need to examine the actions and responses of civic and political leaders. We had the former Sinn Fein Mayor brand people scum, a call for the reinstatement of the IRA by a member of the policing board and a man refer to the children as feral children. All this over a bonfire, the mess of which was cleaned within hours the next day. If only every mess could be cleaned up so easily!

As some politicians and their cronies continue with their outbursts they seem to have overlooked their own wrong doing in this, yet I'm sure their self inflated egos would shudder at the very notion that in their omnipotence they had done anything wrong. Young people are just like the rest of us if they get respect then they're more likely to give it. What's interesting in all this is that out of all the parties and groups it's those connected with Sinn Fein who are the most vitriolic on this issue.

In an article published in the Irish News on Saturday 21st August Martin McGuinness claimed dissident republicans are 'manipulating' youths behind the attacks on Dove House. With this assertion we must question if McGuinness has evidence to substantiate this. If yes has he taken it to the police? If no then are we to assume that this political grandstanding?

In reference to local children McGuinness went on to say: “They need to get their act together; their parents need toget their act together”. If ever there was a brass neck!!! If you want to talk about 'needing to get their act together', lets talk about the fact that the Stormont Administration has failed to develop an anti-poverty strategy for Northern Ireland. Last year High Court Judge Mr Justice Treacy ruled that the Stormont administration was in breach of a duty to implement an overarching blueprint for tackling social exclusion and deprivation. Yet I don't hear the same level of vitriol over the failure to implement a poverty strategy than I do over the bonfire! 

Let's talk about the unemployment level and lack of opportunity for young people, I'll bet you've heard more about the bonfire than you've heard about that. What about the increase of people relying on food-banks? And let's not forget how Stormont parties including Sinn Fein were happy to hand the power over 'welfare reform' to the Tories. If ever a people were shafted by their political leaders then this surely must go down in history as a prime example. So Mr McGuinness the next time you decide to launch all manner of unsubstantiated attacks on people, can I suggest a period of self reflection first.

I would like to point out that this is not an attack on Sinn Fein but as previously pointed out members of their party have been the most vitriolic on this issue. Had Sinn Fein have taken time to engage with local youths instead of demonising them then things could have been a lot different and still could  with cool heads and a common sense approach. 

Cherishing ALL children of the nation equally.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Fuelling The Fire!

Following a short sabbatical from social media I tuned into facebook today only to discover that an incendiary situation in Derry had spontaneously combusted. On Thursday morning children in the Bogside area of the city had their bonfire material which was stored in Meenan Square confiscated under the watchful eyes of heavily armed PSNI officers. Despite any legitimate concerns overkill seems an apt description of this heavy handed approach.

Derry City & Strabane District Council in a statement to the BBC stated "Council is committed to providing advice and support to reduce the risk of bonfires to public safety and minimise any potential detrimental impact to the local environment." Yet I'm not sure how the forced removal of materials by Council in the Bogside marries up with Council's approach to the annual bonfire in the Fountain Estate as part of the 12th night celebrations, which went ahead unimpeded. Could it be different approaches for different areas?

Today I carried out a short survey with a number of young people. I outlined the situation to them giving both sides of the argument. The responses from these young people aged between 11-17 proved interesting. They stated they could understand the reasons not to burn tyres or other similar materials but saw no reason not to allow young people to hold a bonfire in an agreed space with proper support provided by Council. They also unanimously stated that if one section of the community was allowed a bonfire the other should be. One of the older children was emphatic in his call for council to engage directly with the young people and not through 'community groups' as he believes these community groups are more about jobs and funding than the community.

With increased emphasis today on cementing cross community relations we cannot overlook the potential impact the disparity around this issue will have on these relations. As such I would call on Derry and Strabane District Council to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment to ensure that young people who may already feel socially excluded and marginalised are not further disenfranchised by the actions of our local government authority. Furthermore we must also look at the failure of so called community elements who promote cross community relations yet seemingly overlook inter-generational work in their own communities. When those funded to work within the community are butting heads with the community members they are paid to support their approach needs to be addressed as does their absence when things go awry.

At a time like this you also have to wonder where the self appointed moral guardians are? The Bogside Residents Group who were formed for the purpose of addressing contentious issues were noticeably absent. Where was the Unity Of Purpose Group and their soap box? Outside of of the efforts of Independent Councilor Gary Donnelly did any other elected representatives engage directly with the young people? Another person who could have intervened was Jim Roddy of the City Centre Initiative. Jim who was recently awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to the community was nowhere to seen. As after all who better to engage with young people on these issues than a former fireman.

If council worked directly with the young people as opposed to community groups a practical and pragmatic outcome could be reached. Maybe the local youth could request to engage with council directly next time with the existing community groups clearly incapable of reaching an amicable solution that is community led as opposed to funding led.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Anti Good Friday Agreement, Anti Democracy Dissidents seek to Destabilise North.

The political drama in the north has been intense over the past few weeks, so much so it has left me questioning whether or not a lot of it is a sideshow designed to take the focus of more imminent issues.

Brexit remains a prominent feature in this deflection as was also clear from the recent local council meeting I attended. Here a motion was carried to have the rights of the majority respected with the majority of people in Derry & the north having voted to remain within the EU.

Now here's the rub, these politicians like myself knowingly took part in a UK wide referendum yet are now refusing to accept the democratic outcome because it didn't go in their favour. As someone who openly voted to remain within the EU I believe the actions of both 'nationalist' parties to be disingenuous as well as being dismissive of their much vaunted Good Friday Agreement. An agreement which in effect cemented the north into the UK via the following section 'Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people'. Note to politicians this isn't the hokey cokey we haven't the luxury of dipping in and out when it suits, as another song goes, 'we're all in this together', like it or loathe it.

Usually when there's an election in the air you can't go thirty paces without the forced smile of a potential politician scaring small children from their perch on a lamp post. But this election was different despite the huge impact a leave vote would have. The performance by the 'Nationalist' parties was lackluster at best, I would go so far as to say even a healthy dose of viagra wouldn't have given their campaigns the oomph required. This would explain the overall low Nationalist turnout. It's actually sad to think that a comedian was a more prominent and effective remain campaigner than all the comedians, sorry politicians here.

Post Brexit the SDLP's Colum Eastwood said "here on the island of Ireland, we must map the challenges, purposes and priorities that could most affect us, north and south, rather than following the impulses and bad decisions of the British government". This comment whilst constructive is a bit like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted in that these “challenges, purposes and priorities” should have been discussed in advance of any referendum.

Sinn Fein's immediate response to Brexit was to call for a border poll. As keen negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement I'm sure Sinn Fein are aware that a border poll not only requires the consent of a majority people but the express permission of the British Secretary of State. With partition having been designed to ensure a six county unionist majority I don't believe we'll see a border poll anytime soon. And if by some miracle we do then with the uncertainty deriving from Brexit I doubt we will get the desired outcome unless of course we buy into the outcome of recent opinion polls which don't require the permission of the Secretary of State or proof that you live in Ireland north or south.

At a meeting held recently in Strabane Sinn Fein representatives announced that they have retained two international barristers in a bid to challenge the British Government over Brexit. Sinn Fein's Pat Doherty suggested that the party want to protect the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. With Donegal Senator Padraig Maclochlainn stating that “Brexit is dangerous and destabilising for the peace process”. The strong possibility of a physical border is another bone of contention for the party, that with the added fear of a British military presence at the borders. Whilst these are genuine concerns, I think at this point energies should be channeled into getting the best deal possible for the north in terms of the border, financial assurances and GFA obligations.

One of my main concerns is that outside of the EU we effectively lose a regulatory body, which when necessary can scrutinise the actions of Cruel Britannia without us having to go through Strasbourg which includes a lengthy process. Everything else is up for negotiation and who knows there may even be a legal loophole to be exploited.

Now back to the hokey cokey, if we had the luxury of opting in and out of the UK then our politicians should have done so over the welfare reform debacle. The idea that further hardship is to be inflicted upon a struggling population still suffering the after effects of the conflict does not bear thinking about. If we at any time deserved special status then it should have been then. But oh no after a bit of costly sham fighting our politicians handed devolved welfare powers back to the millionaire Tory cabinet in an attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility.

This is the same Tory government in London “who don’t give a damn about people in the North – unionist or nationalist” as was recently stated by Martin McGuinness. It's a pity his party didn't take the same view when agreeing to hand welfare powers back to them. But then these same Sormont parties were content to hand legislation to deal with the past over to Westminster until challenged by local victims at which point they began to back track. Whether they will hand this legislation to Westminster in the coming months remains to be seen. Either way this legislation will be submitted soon with a significant amount of focus now being placed on the need to deal with the past and the need for victim's trauma services.

And on the need for services I would like to see those in public office devote more attention to other issues stemming from the troubles. The sad truth is we have lost more people to suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement than those killed during the troubles. Added to this is the recorded heavy reliance on anti-depressants in the north as well as the growing addiction crisis. Yet despite this we have little by way of resources to properly address these issues. Whilst many of these people don't fall into the victim category they are none the less victims of circumstance and as human rights go are entitled to services conducive to their well-being. Services which are currently limited to the point of non-existent in many places.

Another concern is the issue of Welfare reform. Could I be right in thinking that the Brexit debacle is being used to divert attention from ongoing savage cuts to the welfare budget? Brexit to take the focus of the many more set to struggle to afford breakfast? With recent figures showing the numbers reliant on emergency food parcels from the Trussel Trust in the north having increased by 48%.

The Disability Living Allowance which is widely claimed in the north has recently been replaced by the Personal Independence Payment. With this there has been little explanation on how the three rates of payment under DLA have been reduced to two under PIPs, removing the lower rate that many currently rely on. With the main Stormont parties quiet on the subject I have attached an information leaflet below.

Another issue which has managed to slide by quietly is the recent questioning of the Bloody Sunday Soldiers. These soldiers were questioned by appointment then later released without charge having refused to comment. The idea that those suspected of murder, I would go further and say war crimes, were able to dictate the terms of their questioning and halt a police investigation to do so to this day still astounds me, particularly with the suspects having been pinpointed during a lengthy judicial inquiry. In terms of their questioning my guess is these soldiers who are being supported by the MOD had two options open to them, silence or to state they were following orders which is no longer a defence. And even if it was the shooters have already been branded rogues and bad apples by those higher up the chain of command to take the focus of how the whole orchard was rotten from root to branch, top to bottom. Bad apples and rogue elements seem to be the phrases used when state forces are exposed as being involved in torture and murder. From collusion and shoot to kill in the north to the torture and murder of Iraqi civilians in the far east.

As many of the Bloody Sunday families continue in their quest for justice I can't help but notice a two tier justice system right down to the cut backs in the legal aid budget. Moreover I can't help but think of how the issues marched for that day January 1972 remain the same despite increased representation at Stormont. We still have internment without trial as is seen in the case of Tony Taylor who is being held at the whim of the British Secretary of State, and we continue to have a housing and poverty crisis. Ask yourself outside of the the peace carve up and superficial window dressing how far have we really come?

In a recent televised interview Veteran Civil Rights leader Ivan Cooper told the politicians here to get “off their asses and get the work done”. When discussing the non-violent, ant-sectarian civil rights movement he described it as a “great movement” adding there was “never another one like it”. With many politicians only good at sitting on their asses I can't help but think maybe there should be?

I suppose as I sign off this latest entry it would be remiss of me not to mention the Irish Government strategy when it comes to referenda, with specific reference to the treaties of Lisbon & Nice. If at first you don't get the result you want just hold another referendum. Sure it flies in the face of democracy but it seems democracy is only democracy when you get the result you want. If the remain camp had won the brexit vote I'm quite sure they would've been telling anyone objecting to the outcome to respect the democratic wishes of the people anything else is Anti Good Friday Agreement by malcontent Anti Democracy Dissidents and will only help to destabilise the North.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Clarification on comments made recently in the local press.

I have penned this letter in response to articles published in the Derry Journal on July 6th and Derry News on July 7th 2016. These articles were based on comments by some of our local elected representatives. I had intended to send this to the press but have decided against this because I am positive they would sanitise it. So dear blog readers get a cuppa and get ready to read about the adventures of some of our elected representatives and their uncanny ability to make fact out of fiction.

The comments made in both articles relate to recent Community Planning events which were held consecutively in three of the city's electoral wards on June 30th. During these events an interim Chairperson for each area was selected to represent each DEA at a Council planning forum. As one of the nominees I am concerned that some Councillors in a bid to detract from councils failings in this process have proceeded to indulge in trial by media and lambast many of those who have shown interest in areas of community planning.

As well as writing this widely read blog I am a mother and a community activist who devotes a lot of her spare time to assisting & supporting members of the community with a range of issues. In 2009, I was a founder member of the Galliagh ConcernedResidents Group which took Council to task over their refusal to acknowledge their role in a community development. Council's handling of this situation saw residents notified of developments in their area as opposed to being consulted with. I had hoped that lessons had been learned from this but clearly not with the recent community planning events proving little more than a flawed paper exercise. Further to this has been the appalling conduct of some Councilors one of whom (Councillor McCallion) has made continuous spurious allegations, which believe it or not stem from meetings she did not attend.

These allegations take a number of forms:

Councilor McCallion alleges there was a 'mob' traveling between the meetings intimidating people including Councillors and Council officers. If so have either the Council officers or Councillors concerned logged this alleged intimidation with the police? If not then we must question why a Councillor who was not in attendance at these meetings has made such allegations. In an era when most people have some sort of smart phone attached to them if there was intimidation and 'mob' rule then surely someone must have evidence of this. And whilst hearsay and supposition may amount to fact in Councillor McCallion's world in the real world it amounts to little, well unless you count closed material proceedings.

Councillor McCallion's second allegation of intimidation related to what has been described as a heated exchange between two older women. This is something local SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney has also commented on in the press. However as with Councillor McCallion, Councillor Brian Tierney was also not at the meeting.

I am concerned by Councillors Tierney and McCallion's keenness to indulge in trial by media. To condemn someone in the press (whether you name them or not) it would be useful if either of these 'community leaders' had actually witnessed something or spoken to the accused. A woman who believes that out of a room rife with heated debate she has been used a scapegoat. Which is quite possibly an attempt to deflect from Council's poor handling of the entire situation and the fact the people are now challenging the status quo. After all it wouldn't be good for the status quo if people started to have input into what happens in their communities!

The third allegation made by Councilor McCallion involves an Independent Councilor who she alleges instructed one of the nominees to withdraw her nomination. That a Councilor and former first citizen of this city would spew such unfounded nonsense is not only deeply concerning but is starting to make the ideas of former British Law Lord Kenneth Diplock seem fair and just. Again unlike Councillor McCallion I have actually spoken to the nominee and Councillor both of whom totally refute Councilor McCallion's allegation. I'm sure if Councillor McCallion had spoken to the lady who withdrew her nomination then things would be different. But then it's possible Councillor McCallion wouldn't want the truth getting in the way of a few soundbites in the media. Note for future reference; what you know, what you're told, what you think you know and what you can actually substantiate with fact or evidence are entirely different things.

On July 6th I asked to meet with SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney to raise my concerns with him. Councillor Tierney agreed to meet & clarified some of the comments attributed to him. However whether Councillor Tierney will take the time to clarify his position publicly in the media is unknown, although I would hope he will do the right thing.

I also extended the same courtesy to Sinn Fein Councilor Elisha McCallion having rang her office requesting to speak with her about her recent comments. As of today the response from Councilor McCallion has been about as substantive as her evidence in that she hasn't responded.

If we are to move forward as city then we need to be looking at how the recent behaviour of some Councillors could discourage potential investors. To ensure an end to this behaviour I would call on the Councillors in question to revisit the Nolan principles on public life after all can you imagine any other profession where people in leadership positions call colleagues liars publicly and spread misinformation about the people they are charged with representing. If it was any other profession then their conduct would be deemed unacceptable and they would be removed from their position. How this looks to people from outside the city should be of concern to everyone.

In closing I feel the important thing now is to ensure the involvement of the wider community in all areas of community planning. As such I would suggest that Council refers these matters back to the community this time availing of a broad spectrum of avenues to help advertise these events, with proper management processes put in place to ensure that anyone who wants to engage with Council on their plans for the community & the city have opportunity do so. After all a community plan without the community is just a plan, one the community have no ownership of.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Vote Early and Vote Often!!

There are times when I am so glad of this blog. This blog gives me the space to convey my thoughts and on the odd occasion the opportunity to set the record straight, particularly when there are those out there content to distort the truth. Now let me tell you a long and boring story........

Derry City and Strabane District Council held a number of 'Community Planning Meetings', three of which took place in Derry on June 30th. Despite claiming to want further engagement on matters of community planning council in their endeavors failed to notify residents of these meetings outside of an advertisement in the classified section of the Derry Journal, which in itself speaks volumes. I would go as far as to say that Council has contradicted key elements in their own draft plan. In the plan Council states they want 'More engaged & influential communities.' & 'Residents don't feel involved in decision making which affects them'. So what do they do, they don't give the community opportunity to engage in the process, therefore denying them the chance of becoming involved in the decision making process & influencing matters which affect them! And this is a super council! Yeah super duper!

In addition to this the process employed by Council was wide open to abuse with people who knew of the meetings able to cast a vote for the interim chairperson nominees of their choosing in all of the three electoral areas, giving life to the old saying 'vote early and vote often'. Yup even if you lived in the Brandywell you could turn up in Ballyarnett ward and vote there too. I kid you not this process made the infamous Londonderry Corporation seem like a reasonable bunch of chaps and is evidence that community planning engagement has become little more than a weighted paper exercise.

Prior to these meetings I was approached by residents and asked to put myself forward for the position of interim chairperson in the Ballyarnett DEA. As one of the many disenfranchised from local community structures I was immediately dismissive of the very suggestion, with the current community framework subject to weighted political control. However after a bit of persuasion I reluctantly put forward my nomination offering skills, experience, fresh blood and objectivity. Sadly in our community these traits count for nothing because as I expected the troops were rallied (metaphorically of course) to ensure one of the usual suspects filled the available positions. In the two other areas some nominees for the post of Interim Chair withdrew their nominations one of those specifically citing the treatment of people at a meeting earlier that day as part of the reason for the withdrawal of his nomination.

As the ballots for interim chairperson were being counted at the first meeting there was a palpable level of discontent among many of the attendees who were concerned that the process lacked structure & was stacked. In advance of the meeting and fully aware of what lay ahead I discussed with some residents the two potential outcomes of the vote. Here it was agreed that if I was unsuccessful we would establish an alternative structure which would take the form of an Independent Community Forum with a related electronic hub. When the vote was announced 73/31 I took the opportunity to announce our plans which went down like a lead balloon with some. Why or how anyone could have a problem with the community being kept up to date with information on developments in their area is beyond me. Maybe in cloud cuckoo land or in one of Josef Stalin's wet dreams this would be an issue. But in modern day Derry City, the jewel in the north, the crucible of civil rights, surely not! But alas some people just have no consideration for the community when pretending to implement a community planning process . Despite this, when leaving I then personally congratulated the new interim chairperson Martin Connolly, something which has been conveniently overlooked by those seeking to quiet any alternative voice.

Former Mayor Elisha McCallion was quick to dismiss the suggestion of an independent forum describing it as divisive. This after I explained that the forum would be open, transparent and inclusive. As Elisha spoke I thought to myself just what part of open, transparent and inclusive does she not understand? Having responded to her comments Elisha approached me immediately after the meeting in a bid to reinforce her point. This gave me the opportunity to reiterate my position and to remind her of her part in what was widely regarded as a divisive process in 2009 when she was employed by the Galliagh Development Trust .

As word filtered out that people had the audacity to be concerned about a flawed process the facebook warriors kicked in to quell questions from curious citizens and to attempt to blacken people who disagreed with keeping the community in the dark. In the midst of this were comments made about myself by Sinn Fein's Director of Elections, Mickey Anderson. Not only did Mickey attribute comments to me that I never made in respect of a 'countering community hub' Mickey stated I did not congratulate Martin Connolly on his election, wrong on both counts Mickey as can be confirmed by the newly elected interim chairperson.

But then I wasn't the only person to have fallen foul of Mickey's misdirected ire. In a follow up
statement Mickey accused local people of intimidating former Sinn Fein MLA Mary Nelis including those he refers to as so called independents. With this maybe Mickey would like to take the opportunity to clarify which independents he was referring to and who he was calling an anti-community thug? Moreover maybe Mickey can confirm if he was speaking as an individual or in his capacity as a prominent Sinn Fein figure in the Derry area?

I would welcome a response from Mickey and will gladly publish his response. Oh and Mickey if you're reading this, if you choose to write to me anonymously, unlike previous correspondence to my husband, when sending an email and seeking to remain anonymous don't send it from your Mickey Anderson email address as the clue is in the name!

Mickey was joined online by his Sinn Fein Comrade, Colm Barton who derided people for not accepting the outcome of a 'democratic' election, yet both are associated with a party who in the aftermath of the 'brexit' vote are now disputing the outcome of an election, well an actual election one in which you could only vote in a ward if you were registered there and you needed i.d. to vote, unlike the 'Mickey Mouse' version foisted upon the people by those clever folks paid out of our domestic rates.

Where this goes and how this pans out is ultimately in the hands of the council and I for one hope common sense prevails, after all a community plan without the community is just a plan. And if residents don't feel involved in decision making which affects them, then Council has failed at the first hurdle.

The thing is people want what's best for their community, they want what's best for their children, but this won't be achieved by perpetuating the same self serving structures that have caused a disconnect between the community and groups operating in the name of the community. Like the Londonderry corporation some structures just need to be condemned to the dustbin of history. Now that's one bin I would like to see disposed of.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Don't Leave Me This Way!
With there being a lot of discussion on whether to stay in or leave the European Union in advance of the June 23rd referendum I have decided it's time to give my two -'euro cents' worth on the matter.

My initial thought when I received my polling card was to decline my right to vote in the referendum. However having taken the time to weigh up the pros and cons I've since changed my mind and I'm voting to stay in the EU and for the reasons outlined below:

Firstly, one of the main points of contention for  Britain's leave campaign is the need to have control of their own affairs without interference. The idea that the most colonial power on the face of the planet would even admit to this publicly is hysterical. I wonder from this if they will host similar referenda in their remaining colonies yet I very much doubt it!

Britain's leave campaigners are further concerned over how European laws are being passed in Brussels and later upheld in the European court. As people subject to 'British Justice'(now there's an oxymoron) I believe we in the North benefit from this oversight which offers a level of legal scrutiny we would not have outside of the European Union.

Whatever your thoughts on the Good Friday Agreement, lawyers have argued that leaving Europe can make null and void some of the promises fulfilled as well as those outstanding from the agreement. Taking this into consideration alone this could be a reason why the Anti-Good Friday Agreement DUP are firmly behind the leave campaign.

On March 31st in the Global Justice Academy Blog, Professor Christine Bell described the impact that leaving the European Union would have on the political institutions and on the people in the North. Within her analysis Prof Bell identified four key problematic areas: 1)The removal of an enabling factor for peace 2)The reinstatement of a Now-Invisible Border 3)The impact on trade and 4)EU funding for peace. This blog is worth reading irrespective of your views on the peace process.

Locally some campaigners have argued leaving the European Union on the strength of the refugee crisis. One of those in favour of leaving has made specific reference to the images of refugees being kept out of Europe with the use of huge fences. With this argument I would contest that leaving will see these fences being replaced with strict border controls which will make it more difficult for those fleeing war torn countries to seek asylum. This is clear with others on the leave side stating that leaving will allow them to control immigration levels.

On the issue of employment rights, in April of this year, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that to leave Europe would permit to Tories to "dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it”. I would tend to agree with Corbyn on this and as such question what guarantees, if any, have been given in respect of these rights with those including some trade union bodies/individuals opting to leave the EU.

On the issue of trade those on the leave side contest that leaving will make them more flexible and allow them more freedom to increase trade with countries such as China and India, of which there is no guarantee. Meanwhile leaving the EU is set to mean less flexibility when it comes to trading with existing EU countries.

With the issue of investment/employment the leave campaigners are confident that the low corporation tax will help attract further investment. Again there is no guarantee that this investment will come and if it does will remain long term. Low corporation tax may be attractive in the short term but once the incentives dry up the companies will up and leave just as they do here in the north when the Invest NI grants dry up. In one case in particular a company (Stream) moved jobs from Derry to Belfast to avail of another grant, a move which was welcomed by Stormont politicians!

With lower corporation tax we must keep in mind that it is the poorest who will be footing the bill for any money lost whilst big corporations get to enjoy lower tax bills.

The leave campaign contest that banks currently based in the UK will choose to stay in the UK with the low tax rate. I have no love for bankers but the reality is these banks currently enjoying the profits offered under the European Union will avail of lower tax rates which may serve to make up any reduction in profits. Either way you can be sure that the UK government will compensate the banks for any loss incurred, with the UK economy under threat of collapse if they leave.

The UK Tax expert Richard Murphy has this to say on the matter:
“I rather strongly suspect that Brexit would be the precursor for the creation of tax haven UK where a relaxation in regulation and tax rules would bring hot money to London. After all, why else are hedge funds so keen on Brexit?” Now apart from the rich, who would benefit from a tax haven, not you or I, I'd bet. I'd say we're more concerned with tax credits than tax havens. And on the subject of hedge funds, you only have to look at the role they played in the creation of the financial crisis. Our great grandchildren will be paying for this fallout long after we're gone.

We in the North have a lot to lose financially from cutting ties with the EU considering Europe has paid £1.3 billion euro since 1995 to support 'peace' in the north and the border counties in the Republic of Ireland through PEACE and Interreg programmes. Added to this there is a further £400+million earmarked for the North. I would be concerned about losing access to these funds. With this I believe we have the most to lose when you consider the money that will be saved from leaving the European Union is less likely to come here than anywhere else, with corporation tax powers soon to be devolved to Stormont (God help us). Hey with information so vague the money said to be saved from leaving Europe may even go to topping up the bankers coffers to ensure they stay put.

As someone who lives in a colony (lol) this entire fiasco seems to be mismanaged by both the leave and remain campaigns. I'm sure at the root of it, on both sides, big business has it's hands in the pockets of both campaigns because as usual they'll bet on both sides of the coin and no matter what the outcome it will be the ordinary people who bear the brunt of this mismanagement.

Here there has been little public debate,unless you count the recent intervention of comedian Eddie Izzard, who if I'm honest, I'd rather have representing me than some of those on the hill. To date both sides here just pop out of their respective foxholes and make a statement before retreating again.

In contrast, during the run up to the local assembly elections the political parties were only too keen to lay out their positions at hustings events where they could be questioned by the great unwashed. I am now calling on those in support of both stay and leave to engage in a public debate here in the city where they will be given the opportunity to lay out their positions and answer questions of those on the floor. I would go further and offer to organise and publicise this event. After all members of Labour have no problem standing alongside members of the Tory party as part of their respective remain or leave campaigns so this shouldn't be a problem here.

I look forward to hearing from you all, and remember there's only a couple of weeks until the referendum so time is of the essence if you are willing to debate this publicly. So Stormont parties the ball is in your court.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Insulated From Challenge

The case of Tony Taylor should be of real concern to everyone with an interest in justice. Tony Taylor is a Republican prisoner from Derry who has been sent to Maghaberry prison on the orders of the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers. Ms. Villiers who has no mandate in the north of Ireland revoked Tony's release licence in March of this year when Tony was arrested in full view of his family whilst on a shopping trip by armed PSNI officers who surrounded the family car.

The decision to return Tony Taylor to prison is not based on a new conviction which has been proved beyond reasonable doubt by a competent legal authority. This decision has been made by Northern Ireland Office, the British Secretary of State, the NI Parole Commission and all on the strength of alleged MI5 intelligence. Within these unaccountable structures secret evidence is produced in a closed room during what is known as Closed Material Proceedings. In these cases the state that makes the decision to detain you appoints a ‘Special Advocate’ to represent you. However the advocate who has been appointed as your representative cannot discuss the alleged evidence with you. What he or she can do is give your legal team a 'gist' of what is being alleged, which needless to say is insufficient in terms of building a robust legal defence. The role of the special advocate was described by the late British Law Lord, Lord Bingham as being akin to ‘taking blind shots at a hidden target’.

A core principle within the justice system is to know the case against you so as to have the opportunity to build a defence in respect of that case. Closed Material Proceedings (secret evidence) remove this basic right. These procedures may meet the minimum standards required by article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights but they are not and cannot be objectively fair as has been acknowledged by senior members of the British Judiciary.

In the case of Al Rawi and others v The Security Service, Supreme Court Justice Lord Kerr had this to say in respect of Closed Material proceedings:
The central fallacy of the argument… lies in the unspoken assumption that, because the judge sees everything, he is bound to be in a better position to reach a fair result. That assumption is misplaced. To be truly valuable, evidence must be capable of withstanding challenge. I go further. Evidence which has been insulated from challenge may positively mislead.’ In the above case the government argued that they had the right to hold civil trials in secret, despite no law permitting this. The UK Supreme Court threw the case out, with Lord Kerr further stating that the“right to be informed of the case made against you is not merely a feature of the adversarial system of trial, it is an elementary and essential prerequisite of fairness.” Despite this Closed Material Procedures were later introduced in UK Civil Courts in 2013 via the Justice and Security Act.

With Lord Kerr's comments in mind we must question the use of Closed Material Proceedings and whether or not they are really in the interest of national security or if they are a way of covering over information the government don't want disclosed. This was witnessed in the case of Binyam Mohamed. Binyam Mohamed from Ethiopia who was granted refugee status in Britain in 1994 was later detained in Pakistan in 2002 on suspicion of involvement in terrorist activity. Following this he was taken to Morocco and Afghanistan. Here he was subjected to torturous treatment at the hands of his US captors before being sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2004.

During his trial Mr Mohamed said that MI5 was complicit in his torture as they could have intervened but instead chose to help his interrogators by supplying questions for them to ask. In this case the government attempted to cover information which the High Court insisted ‘could never properly be described in a democracy as a "secret" or an "intelligence secret" or a "summary of classified intelligence"’. It was later found that the paragraphs that had been kept hidden contained ‘admissions of what officials of the US did to BM during his detention in Pakistan’. In this case there was an attempt to use the national security card as a veil of secrecy as opposed to being a mechanism to protect the public. This is the same national security card being used in the case of Tony Taylor and the same card which will no doubt  hinder attempts to deal with the North's murky past through new proposed mechanisms outlined in the now redundant Stormont House Agreement.

In a 100 page report compiled by the Committee for the Administration for Justice in 2012 the following points were raised in relation to MI5's role in the north: “MI5 – secret, unreformed and unaccountable – is now running one of the most sensitive areas of policing”. The report went on to stress that “this is a disaster waiting to happen to confidence in the rule of law and our peace settlement”. With this and the role of M15 in the above case of Binyam Mohamed how are people expected to have any faith in policing when an organisation described as being opaque and dangerously unaccountable play a prominent role in policing albeit covertly?

When you consider the case of Binyam Mohamed you have to wonder if the alleged intelligence used to incarcerate Tony Taylor is in the interest of national security or if it's been kept behind closed doors because it won't stand up to scrutiny. Moreover I would question if the framework used in Tony Taylor's case and in other cases involving closed material proceedings is being abused to curtail the lawful political activity of ex-prisoners such as Tony Taylor with the information used to hold Tony being insulated from challenge.

Tony Taylor's situation is reminiscent of that of Lurgan man Martin Corey who was incarcerated in Maghaberry in similar circumstances. Corey was released four years later into internal exile in that he could not return to his own home despite never being charged with any crime. If a person has a case to answer then they should be given the opportunity to do so as anything else amounts to internment without trial irrespective of how the state tries to sell it.

To play your part in helping address the treatment of Tony Taylor I would ask that people register their concerns in writing with the relevant authorities and with the press outlets that publish public letters. I would also ask that you write to your local human rights groups, trade union groups and elected representatives to have them raise this case on every platform available to them. Tony's incarceration demonstrates a blatant abuse of power, scant regard for basic human rights and a complete disregard for the fundamental principles of justice.

There are elected representatives who think that raising Tony's case in Stormont is a pointless exercise with this situation falling under the remit of the Northern Ireland Office. For MLA's of this opinion I would urge you to rethink this with every injustice and human rights abuse worldwide deserving of a public platform. Retired SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey raised issues similar to that of Tony Taylor's. His input alone helped attract press attention and in doing so elevated the profile of each case he raised.

The higher the public profile the more pressure can be applied to those in a position to release Tony Taylor.