Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Every Vote and Every Voice Counts.

 Ahh folks another election. This time a general election when we go to the polls to vote for who we want to represent us/or not in Westminster. Sure, what else would we be doing this week?

Some would argue that participation in Westminster is a pointless exercise on a small pea in a big pod basis whereas I'm of the opinion that we should be represented everywhere no matter how small, and moreso now with upcoming Brexit negotiations. Whatever your thoughts or position on the European Union the withdrawal of the north will have huge consequences for Ireland, north and south. So for this reason and many others, I believe we need to be represented.

With my position on the need for representation I generally support alternative candidates. I openly supported  Eamonn McCann in the 2010 general election, Darren O'Reilly in the 2014 council election and Dr Anne McCloskey in the 2016 Stormont election. This time will be different but before I go into it let's look at the candidates standing in the Foyle constituency.

First up we have the Alliance candidate John Doherty a law graduate from Foyle. As with previous Alliance candidates in Foyle John seems to be a paper candidate despite the Alliance party having gained ground in the last assembly election. Colm Kavanagh received 1,124 first preference votes in March which was an increase of 886 on Chris McCaw's 238 from the previous assembly election. With the Alliance party candidates in this constituency changing from election to election, i'm starting to wonder if their selection process consists of tickets and a hat from which a candidate/victim is selected. Good luck John.

Next up we have the People Before Profit Candidate Shaun Harkin. No doubt Shaun will be hoping to retain the party vote gained in the last assembly election when Eamonn McCann received 4,760 first preference votes. However, whether Shaun can retain the above vote is debatable with McCann known to secure a huge personal vote and with many voters opting to vote tactically in general elections as Maurice Devenney will tell you.

There was a belief in the last Assembly election that McCann would have secured a huge percentage of the vote Dr Anne McCloskey received in 2016, this didn't happen. The biggest problem that Shaun Harkin faces in this election which is mostly focused on Brexit is his party's lack of consistency on the issue. During the Brexit referendum People Before Profit supported the leave position yet strangely they are now insisting that they had not campaigned for it.

Despite this, in their election literature they are now claiming that they will oppose a Tory Brexit. With the Tories being the dominant force during the referendum the question must be asked, why wait until now to oppose a Tory Brexit? With PBP still supporting our withdrawal from the European Union it seems their current position is nothing more than a play on words.

I find as a voter that consistency helps yet the only thing consistent with People Before Profit is their track record in selecting candidates from the Socialist Workers Party. This with their representatives in the Dail and Stormont all members of the Socialist Workers party as is the case with Eamonn McCann and Shaun Harkin. That aside, Good Luck Shaun.

Next candidate is Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion who topped the poll in the last assembly election. In an election leaflet targeting female voters Elisha is promising to have your views represented in the Dail and in the European Parliament. Now here’s where it goes a bit pear shaped for me. How can this be when she is not elected to either parliament?

In this election Elisha is also promising to be a strong but absent voice in Westminster. With this being the case she may as well stand and shout into the Carnhill tunnel. Sinn Fein have their
Carnhill  Tunnel
abstentionist position re Westminster which they argue on the strength of an ideological standpoint. They also go to great lengths to point out the level of representation in Westminster is minimal and amounts to little use in the grand scheme of Westminster. But with that logic you could argue the same point in relation to their participation in the European Parliament where Sinn Fein are but an even smaller pea in a bigger pod. I believe that no matter how small every voice counts as well as every vote as was shown in the outcome of the Fermanagh and South Tyrone election in 2010 when Michelle Gildernew was elected with a majority of four votes.

I suspect Sinn Fein's stance on Westminster will eventually change as consistency is something Sinn Fein can rarely be accused of unless you regard constant change as consistency. In 2010 former British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Patterson gave Sinn Fein the opportunity to bypass having to swear allegiance to the Queen by coming up with alternative wording to the current pledge. So the opportunity was and is there to represent the people of the north. And I think it’s worth bearing in mind that if Sinn Fein win a seat they still have to represent the people that didn’t vote for them. So effectively in an election were they don’t take their seats if Sinn Fein win the seat they are disenfranchising people who want representation! Good Luck Elisha.

Another local candidate is the DUP’s Gary Middleton. With no Unionist opposition the DUP vote might increase, but then again Unionists may vote strategically for a few reasons. Firstly, the chances of returning a DUP MP for the city are slim at best so they may consider their options. And secondly, the majority of people in this area voted remain in the Brexit referendum. Now given the RHI scandal, the DUP position on equal marriage, the abuse of the petition of concern and their support for the leave campaign I can say with certainty that Gary won’t be getting my vote. But it will be interesting to see if there is a change in voting numbers. If only he could get an endorsement from the Loyalist Communities Council! Good Luck Gary.

My support for credible alternative candidates will not change. However, in this election I will be voting for Mark Durkan of the SDLP. Does this change my position on the SDLP? No it doesn't as I believe them to be lackluster in many areas. But in fairness to them, the SDLP have remained consistent with their positions which is more than can be said for some who seem to change their's with the weather.

On a personal level Mark Durkan has always been very welcoming and attentive to the various issues I raised with him, issues ranging from social justice to human rights. On the victim's issue which came to the fore in 2015 Mark always made time to engage with victims who many times in my company arrived at his office without appointment. In addition to this, he was the only representative to attend a meeting in the City Hotel on the victim’s issue that every Stormont party was invited to send a representative to. Here Mark faced very tough questioning.

Last September I was involved in a project to mark World Suicide Prevention Day.
That day Mark turned up and spent hours on the Guildhall Square in Derry conversing with people of all ages and distributing information on mental health and well-being. Mark & independent Councilor Gary Donnelly were the only elected representatives to turn up on the day. This project proved extremely worthwhile with information on mental health & wellbeing having been distributed to over 1,500 people. On the same day a man found in distress was brought to safety from the river’s edge.

Empty Chair Project

Meanwhile across the water, with the Tories seemingly losing a bit of ground the smaller parties could hold the balance of power. If you think of the Brexit vote, everyone thought it was done deal even the leave campaign. So there is always a chance for the tide to turn as is clear with the recent opinion polls showing Labour to be gaining ground. Should this translate into votes and then seats then the participation of those opposed to Tory cuts and focused on securing the best deal for the north re brexit could prove crucial. And if all else fails surely strong voices, even one, is better than none.

In closing, I have read quite a number of comments on social media from Sinn Fein members and supporters who ask what Mark Durkan has delivered from Westminster. My question to them is have you overlooked the small matter of a defunct but none the less devolved 'government' at Stormont which is tasked with delivery? Because if you want to go comparing delivery success here's an easy way for you to do it. Below are job sections from the Derry Journal, one from May 1999 when the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party made up the majority at Stormont and the other from Friday which will give an indication of the level of delivery in the North West under the two current leading parties.

Of course, there are other factors in this, but the reality is, over the past decade the North West has seen very little in terms of Stormont delivery unlike other places.

1999 Broadsheet Format

2017 Tabloid Size

Need I say more.x

Thursday, 1 June 2017

What Plan?

I have been contacted recently by residents from the Iniscarn and Cromore areas of Creggan. These concerned residents have raised issue with having been kept in the dark over a planned development involving land, a community building and flats situated at 33E Cromore Gardens in Creggan. A development which was said to be at an advanced stage despite the absence of any community engagement or consultation.

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive who own the site and contents were believed to be in the process of handing ownership of the above over to An Gaelaras, the director board of An Culturlann. An Gaelaras is an organisation in the North West providing Irish language education, music and cultural activities.

In a business plan relating to the above development the proposal consists of a 'Cultural Cluster' which will be an extension to Culturlann's Irish language and social enterprise project. This plan further includes a range of other projects deemed beneficial to the Creggan community.

But here’s a novel idea, who is better placed to know what will be of benefit to the local community than the residents who live there?

These are the same residents who up until recently knew nothing of this plan until it was uncovered in documents obtained under Freedom of Information Legislation by the Creggan Community Collective who had also expressed an interest in the site.

In the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s Community Cohesion Strategy 2015-2020 the Performance Area Key Impacts outline the following in relation to community planning: 'The need to help local people improve the quality of their lives through participation, consultation and involvement in the decision-making process'. Yet there has been no opportunity for participation,  engagement or consultation around the planned development of the Cromore site. In my opinion, this shows a complete disregard for the residents who should have been the main priority for both the Housing Executive and An Gaelaras.

In point 1.3 of the development business plan which examines promoting equality, tackling poverty and social exclusion a few things caught my attention. The first of which is that the project is welcomed by local community representatives and the Creggan Neighbourhood Partnership who too would seem to have overlooked the small matter of community engagement. Despite this the plan goes on to state that the project will only be successful with the support and active participation of residents. Which begs the question, why have residents been excluded from this process particularly when the success of this project evidently depends on their participation? Yet in their absence, An Gaelaras has 'already drawn up designs and refurbishment plans with an estimated cost of £400,000.' In addition to this they 'have already been in negotiations with funders to put together the necessary funding package.' It is also worth noting that the project will be managed by the An Gaelaras management committee and the board of directors which includes Sinn Fein Councilor for Creggan Kevin Campbell. So here’s another novel idea maybe Councillor Campbell could explain to his constituents why there has been no consultation with residents, and why he as an elected representative for the area has not insisted on this before a single plan was drawn up. .

In light of these goings on I decided to look further into this to try and ascertain who else was involved in this, with the information provided by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive so heavily redacted I thought for a minute it was provided by the Northern Ireland Office. 
Heavily redacted?

From what I have been told, former Sinn Fein Mayor and Westminster Candidate Gerry O'Hara is a key player in this development which I’m sure Gerry would have no problem confirming to residents. It is entirely plausible that Gerry is involved as 2 groups he is involved with are name-checked in the business plan. Those groups listed by An Culturlann are An Ciste Infheistiochta Gaeilge which has Gerry listed as its Chief Executive, and then we have Dearcán Media CIC which has Gerry listed as a director.

Now here's where it gets interesting or confusing depending on your perspective, or sense of humour. Gerry is listed under 4 different names through Companies House, all registered to 37 Great James Street (An Culturlann). Four different names I hear you exclaim, well you have Gearoid Ó' HEARA, Gearóid Ó 'HEÁRA, Gearoid O' HEARA and finally Gearóid O'HEARA. If I was an Irish language activist I would want to make sure my fada's where all in the right places, wouldn’t you?

Why this sudden fascination with Gerry? With Gerry said to be at the forefront of this development and with his fingers in so many other pies one wonders where he gets the time? And primarily, will he be able to find the time to face residents alongside his erstwhile colleague Councillor Campbell to explain why the residents are the last to know of this planned development.

Well that was the blog complete, until earlier today in a dramatic U-turn the Housing Executive had this to say in an article published in the Derry News in respect of the Cromore site; “We have received two applications with regards to this community let. Both of these are currently being considered.”

It would seem that the recent action carried out by local residents and community activists who occupied the site in a bid to get answers has encouraged a bit of a rethink on the part of the Housing Executive. This new development coupled with documents showing that this had gone beyond the application process would seem to indicate that the NIHE made a bit of a booboo. But I suppose time will tell if they are being sincere with this rethink or if this is a mere attempt to patch over what was clearly a flawed process from the start to the advanced stage.

Advanced stage?

For the sake of local residents I just hope that lessons can be learned from this, as a community plan without the community is just a plan.

p.s. Just because the residents have raised concerns doesn’t mean they are against development or the Irish language for that matter…