Thursday, 10 August 2017

A Living Legacy

I recently read the views of the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton on the delay in dealing with the legacy of the past due to the latest political stalemate at Stormont.  And then today concerns were raised by the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory. In his comments Mr Hamilton referred to the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. This agreement contained several proposed mechanisms to deal with the past including the Historical Investigations Unit which was the proposed investigatory body and unlike the other proposals outlined was actually a requirement under European Law. 

Under the Stormont House Agreement, the Historical Investigations Unit was expected to have a life span of five years to investigate troubles related deaths. Ideally this would have been a mechanism with no time limit, free from state interference and with international oversight where possible. However, the Historical Investigations Unit was set to include those who served in policing and security roles in the North during the troubles. Furthermore, the British Secretary of State was to have the power to veto information disclosure as well as the authority to remove the HIU at his/her discretion.  Additionally, the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers were to hold the power to hire and retire the chosen HIU director. Independent?

The other proposed mechanisms included the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR), an Oral History Archive and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group (IRG) which was later removed despite being an integral element of the proposals. The IRG proved quite contentious when it was rumoured to be the mop which would clean up the remaining issues still outstanding after a five-year period through what were to be known as ‘statements of acknowledgement’ although what this meant remains a mystery. Subsequently, the public also learned of plans to limit troubles related inquests to five years and to assist British troops and Security Personnel of a certain age with evading prosecution for their respective crimes. Now if that’s not weighted in the State’s favour I don’t know what is!

There is no disputing the need to deal with the past but unless things change dramatically from the last batch of proposals then we can expect a process which is not independent, is time limited, is one-sided and will only serve the interests of the state. A state which is overly keen to revise and sanitise their role here as one of peacekeepers between sectarian factions rather than an antagonistic and adversarial one.

A contentious element of dealing with the legacy of the troubles is how the respective parties remember their dead. The British would argue that their security forces were upholding law here in line with their ‘peacekeeper’ narrative, yet their legacy in the North speaks for itself, and examination of the facts easily paints a different more accurate picture.  This including their record of collusion with loyalist death squads, the use of internment (then and now), their shoot to kill policy, their indiscriminate brutalisation of communities, their brutalisation of prisoners and the Ballymurphy and Bloody Sunday Massacres, war crimes perpetrated by these ‘peacekeepers’. 

A current controversy in my home city is over a display in the Museum of Free Derry (MOFD), more commonly known as the Bloody Sunday Museum. Anyone who knows me will know that I am meticulous when it comes to recording things accurately and for that reason I would generally take a stance that museums present their exhibits as such and in a neutral fashion. In this case it is how the MOFD presents a record of the names of all those killed during the Free Derry period that has caused the problems as the names of British security force personnel are listed alongside civilians and republican volunteers who lost their lives during the Free Derry period.

I spoke yesterday with local woman Marie Gallagher about this display which is now a prominent feature within the recently revamped museum. Marie is the sister of the late Jim Gallagher who was shot on a bus at the junction of the of the Fort George army barracks on the Strand road in Derry six days after his release from prison in 1976. In this case the soldier responsible later served a prison sentence in of 2 ½ years in Layhill open prison after being convicted of manslaughter. Despite having some justice after Jim’s murder Marie’s son Brian Boyle organised a recent protest at the museum in solidarity with victims who have not yet received justice.

I am aware that a museum will strive to tell the whole story of the period they represent. However, there is a fine line between historical accuracy and revisionism. The MOFD may argue that the display in question accurately reflects all those who lost their lives during the period known as Free Derry but can they state categorically that none of the state forces listed were involved in the brutalisation and murder of innocent civilians anywhere in the North? This is a valid question when you consider the many still seeking justice for crimes committed by the state here, including those murdered on Bloody Sunday some of whom were gunned down at what is now the front entrance of the MOFD.

As we consider this we must keep in mind that many issues from the Free Derry period are not just a snapshot of the past resigned to being a museum exhibit, these issues remain current and for some are as raw today as they were four and a half decades ago.
Furthermore, placing state forces in the same display as people from the community who lost their lives during that period would seem to be an attempt to give the impression of a level playing field. There has not, will not and will never be a level playing field when it comes to the British state protecting itself and the actions of its agents.  As such the museum should not directly or indirectly support this fallacy under the guise of historical or factual accuracy. Particularly a museum claiming to be about ‘our future together as much as it is about the past’.

In their justification of this display the MOFD released the following in a statement: We believe that it is important that we list all of those killed in this period, not only because it is historically accurate but also because, unlike others who would align themselves with the DUP, TUV and British government, we do not believe in any sort of hierarchy of victims.
Whether Museum Staff or the Bloody Sunday Trust choose to believe in a hierarchy of victims or not there is a hierarchy and those at the top of the pile are state agents who stand to be protected through legislation, through British Courts and when all else fails you can be sure the age-old cloak of secrecy known as the national security card will be played.

Whilst I do not subscribe to many of the outlandish conspiracy theories I have read on this issue there does seem to be a degree of normalisation at play here. This was also clear from plans discussed in 2013 to include a memorial garden in the museum. A memorial garden which would include British soldiers, something confirmed by the Museum Manager at a meeting held in the Bogside on July 25th, 2015. Despite denials following this disclosure references to this plan were found in documents obtained under Freedom of Information Legislation.

As a ‘museum of the people’ I would urge the Bloody Sunday Trust to find a solution suitable to all. As plans are underway at Whitehall to whitewash the past through a state protected, time-limited and tokenistic process, victims now more than ever need to be united on issues that will not simply require cool heads and compromise, there needs to be an understanding that there should be more that unites victims of state violence than divides them, unless of course revisionism and the rewriting of history are considered acceptable.

*Note to supporters of normalisation, you cannot normalise an abnormal situation.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Full Circle (Community Crisis Intervention Service)

It’s odd at times how things come back to the beginning. When I sat down to put this piece together I came to think about my reason for starting the Diary of a Derry Mother blog. My first article published on Jan 12th, 2014 came about because of the anger and frustration I felt over Foyle Search & Rescue & HURT being denied funding for a crisis intervention centre in the city. Funding denied by a politically weighted steering group, but more on that later. 

If you’ve been following any of my blogs you may recall that in my previous article I highlighted the ongoing scenario around a proposed Community Crisis Intervention Service for the city. This article stemmed from attending a meeting of Derry and Strabane District Council’s Health and Community Committee on Thursday 7th July. During the course of this meeting attendees witnessed relevant questions relating to the establishment of a Community Crisis Intervention Service raised by SDLP and Independent Councillors totally disregarded by Council Officers involved in discussions around the proposed service.

At this meeting, it was agreed that Council would initiate an open procurement process to advance the establishment of a Community Crisis Intervention Service in the city. This meeting raised a number of questions, primarily, will this proposed service be sufficiently run on the funds secured? This in line with the need identified by Council via an initial scoping exercise and through the community planning process which found this service to be a ‘priority need.’

In my last blog, I listed quite a few questions. These questions and more were later sent to the following people: Karen McFarland Director of Council’s Health and Community Department. Elisha McCallion MP, a member of the Addiction Task-Force, the Community Crisis Intervention Service working group and subsequent Project Team. I also wrote to Martin Connolly, member of the Addiction Taskforce, Community Crisis Intervention Service working group and Project Team, and Maeve McLaughlin former Sinn Fein MLA and Chair of Stormont Health Committee and Addiction Taskforce member.  

To date the only ‘actual’ response I have received has been from Martin Connolly who advised that I contact the statutory agencies for the answers I required. This was despite his membership in the groups listed above.  Martin also admitted that his vision of the project has ‘not progressed to a successful conclusion.’  I did receive an electronic auto response acknowledgement from Elisha McCallion’s office but no answers to the questions and to date no acknowledgement or response from either Council’s Health and Community Department or Maeve McLaughlin.

After the meeting on July 7th there was a sense of frustration from those attending and local campaigners, however thanks to the efforts of Crisis Intervention Services campaigner Monica McClements I have been able to piece together a picture of some of what is happening.

In a question posed I asked, What is the actual nature of this proposed service and what is considered low threshold in this case?’
In the absence of an answer from Council or the others I put the questions to I have been able to establish that on Thursday April 7th, 2016 Council Officer Michael Gallagher who had been tasked by Council to draw up a related business plan advised the Crisis Intervention Service Working Group that the service would cost in the region of £300,000-400,000. Here he also suggested that consideration be given to a pilot service that would minimise the cost yet deliver an adequate service. This cost was eventually set at £80,000 and now sits at £50,000. £40,000 from Council and £10,000 from the Western Health and Social Care Trust. Now as you read this article I’d like you to bear that £40,000 from Council figure in mind the relevance of this will be explained further down.

On April 18th, 2016 the Crisis Intervention Service Working Group discussed a proposed model of what the weekend CCIS would look like. 

Following this at a meeting on December 16th, 2016 the following was discussed in relation to the business case (financial figures). 

At the same meeting, the possibility of the Addiction Task Force becoming the project board and overseeing the delivery and evaluation of the initial Community Crisis Intervention Pilot Service was discussed. This raises a further question for me, because on May 12th 2015 in the course of a Stormont debate Sinn Fein’s Maeve McLaughlin stated “Over the last year, Sinn Féin has established an Addiction Task Force in the city”. So, the question I have is, with this task-force having been established by Sinn Fein, could the Addiction Task-Force potentially overseeing the pilot service and evaluation have implications for council in terms of political neutrality? This of course would depend on the current membership of the addiction task force board, however I feel the undue influence of a singular political party does need to be addressed in as much that it did when the SIF steering group denied funding for a crisis intervention service 3.5 years ago.

What is a matter of major concern is, that the envisaged pilot service has gone from a proposed time-span of 18 months as discussed on February 7th 2017, to a 12 month period suggested at a meeting on April 14th 2017 and has now been reduced to a six month period. I’m hoping someone can explain the rationale behind cutting this pilot service by one year, but then again getting any substantive information on this has proven difficult.

Another line of questioning put forward related to the evaluation of the pilot service.  ‘Has the University (Ulster University) undertaken to carry out this evaluation free of charge?’ If not, what money has been allocated for this? Or will this expenditure come from the current £50,000 funding budget?

Since then, the information obtained by Monica McClements shows that Professor Siobhan O’Neill from the University of Ulster has secured the funding for the evaluation. So why council officers refused to answer this when asked by Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly at the last meeting is beyond me. As let’s face it it’s hardly a matter of national security.

I also asked ‘How will this service be any different to what is currently on offer? With Foyle Search and Rescue currently offering a Community Crisis Intervention Suicide Prevention Programme.’
Having read the documentation it is very clear that Foyle Search and Rescue in conjunction with HURT will be playing a pivotal role within the Community Crisis Intervention project as out of the agencies invited to give a presentation to Council follow up discussions have centred around Hurt and Foyle Search and Rescue’s business plan proposal. So, if what both organisations have to offer is the closest to the Council’s vision of what this service should be I would ask that outside of the counselling aspect from HURT how will this service be any different from what is currently on offer? And again, what is different from what Foyle Search and Rescue and HURT proposed a number of years ago, to what is being proposed now? Time will tell!

And now for a further question, on March 29th, 2017 the Community Crisis Intervention Service working group proposed that Derry City and Strabane District Council manage the CCIS contract as part of the community planning project. Council official Seamus Donaghey agreed to ‘confirm any risks and liability associated.’  Does this mean that on the basis of Mr Donaghey’s findings Council will manage this contract? Of course I'll not be holding my breath waiting for an answer.

Now if you cast your mind back to the start of this blog I asked you to keep in
Lord Rana
mind the £40,000 figure. In the run up to the City of Culture £80,675.30 was spent on clearing the former Tillie & Henderson factory site at the end of the Craigavon bridge via funds from Council and the DOE. What must be noted is this site was owned by the Multi-millionaire hotel owner Lord Rana, a man whose pockets were surely deep enough for him to clean up his own mess. Yet today the best our ‘Super’ Council can muster for a service described as a priority need and hoped to keep people safe is £40,000 which says it all really.

As explained in my previous blog, I am supportive of this project but believe that things must be done right if this service is to prove beneficial both in the short and long-term. I would go further and clarify that I have the utmost respect for Foyle Search and Rescue and HURT who it would seem from the documentation I have read to be the preferred service providers. In fact, as stated above these organisations were the inspiration behind the setting up of this blog with my first entry an article on how Foyle Search and Rescue in conjunction with HURT were refused £220,000 from the Social Investment fund to establish a facility for people found in crisis at the River Foyle. Had this money have been allocated from the much criticised OFMDFM £80 million slush fund in 2014 then we wouldn’t be sitting here today 19 years on from the Good Friday Agreement reliant on the scrapings of the local government money pot to help save lives.

As the Stormont Assembly continues fail with undeniable dysfunctional grace, legacy issues remain one of the key stumbling blocks. Now whether it’s a case of the orange or green legacy is not something I am privy to, but what I do know is in a report published by the Victims and Survivors Service in 2015 levels of mental illness identified in other post-conflict zones have been lower than in the north. This suggests additional issues may be affecting the rates in the north of Ireland. The report states; “that given the high prevalence and economic impact of mental health problems, it is important to understand other factors and how they interact with conflict exposure to effect mental health”. 

The people of this region were failed in 2014 by the refusal to fund a crisis intervention service and sadly there have been lives lost in those intervening years that may have not been had additional resources such as this proposed service been available.  I just hope in 2017 that a proper Crisis Intervention Service is established, resourced and managed properly and is not just some tokenistic form of appeasement.

The bottom line is that if it’s not done right an opportunity to prevent unnecessary loss of life may be missed.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Crisis Service in Crisis?

In April 2016 Derry and Strabane District Council announced their intention to put together a business case for a Crisis Intervention Centre in Derry. This followed an initial scoping exercise which determined the need for this type of service in the city. The need was further consolidated via the Community Planning Health and Well-being Thematic Group as part of the City’s One Plan which identified a Community Crisis Intervention Service’ (CCIS) within the Council area as a priority need.’

If implemented and run properly this service would be a vital resource for the City as Derry is known to have one of, if not the highest suicide rates in the North. What further compounds this, is the impact of many of the social and economic determinants which influence poor mental health, such as high unemployment, poverty, poor housing and high deprivation. So ideally as well as having a service here to support those in crisis the underlying factors that influence mental health & wellbeing need to be included somewhere in the equation.

The proposed Crisis Intervention Service has recently been the subject of some public discussion. However, this pales in comparison to the attention the issue received in advance of the last Assembly Election. Here Sinn Fein’s MLA candidate Elisha McCallion (MP) announced that the service was weeks away from being opened outside of ‘dotting ‘I’s’ and crossing a few ‘t’s.’ As you would expect, this announcement was widely welcomed despite being quickly disputed by Independent Councillor Warren Robinson who through a response from council officials discovered that the proposed service was still at the discussion stage.

To seek further clarity on the matter, a few months ago  local campaigner for addiction / crisis intervention services Monica McClements and I met with two members of the North-West Addiction Task Force, a group which has worked closely with Council on this project. These members stated that a Community Crisis Intervention Service would be operational by this summer and that the initial pilot service would run for a period of 12-18 months.

So where am I going with this?

Today members of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Health and Community Committee were asked to approve the initiation of an ‘open procurement process for a low threshold responsive Community Crisis Intervention Service (CCIS) over a six-month period.’ This with a budget of £50,000. £40,000 from Council and £10,000 from the Western Health and Social Care Trust. At this meeting Councillor Brian Tierney proposed that the subject be brought out of ‘confidential council business' and into the public arena, this proposal was supported by his SDLP colleague Councillor Shauna Cusack. Here many councilors raised genuine concerns. Despite this, few substantive answers were provided. 

In absence of answers from Council here’s what we do know. The Community Crisis Intervention Service is set to provide:

‘A timely non-clinical community response to individuals experiencing social, emotional or situational crisis over the weekend period. It is envisaged that this service will be provided within a neutral venue with fair and equitable access.
It will have a prominent community aspect and individuals of all ages can be brought to this central facility where they can be supported, receive comfort and individual staff will focus on de-escalation, risk assessment, stabilisation, reconnection e.g. with family/support or onward referral to statutory services as appropriate. Whilst this service is not perceived to be a service exclusively for those experiencing harmful alcohol and drug misuse it is anticipated that the protocols will reflect the safe and appropriate management of individuals who are under the influence and do not require immediate medical intervention.’

In theory, this looks promising, but a few things jump out at me, the first being the six-month pilot service period which falls short of the expected 12-18 months. Another issue for me is the £50,000 budget. Even a quick calculation of this figure against potential running costs doesn’t seem right. Now for the sake of expediency and counting each month as 4 weeks, if this service is to run over a 48-hour period each week over six months this service will be expected to run on a budget of £43.40 per hour. And we need to bear in mind this figure needs to cover staff costs, running costs, staff training costs (to meet NISCC standards) admin, IT and public liability insurance, and these are just a few of the things which come to mind.

According to the proposal The proposed service would be subject to on-going evaluation, which the Ulster University, Magee has agreed to undertake. The pilot will facilitate further development and evaluation of any CCIS delivery model should more long-term procurement of a service be required subject to the evaluation outcome being positive.’  They haven’t said how this evaluation would be paid for, and even today at the Council meeting council officers refused to answer this.

In the event of a positive evaluation outcome the various agencies set to benefit from the service (according to the Council document) such as the PSNI and Emergency Services will ‘be required to commit funding on the basis of a co- design Community Plan approach should the initial evaluation determine an extension of or development of a long-term service is required’. My question here is has anyone within Council confirmed that these agencies will be happy to, or have the budget to commit funding, or has whoever drafted this document on behalf of Council just decided that this will be a requirement? To take this a step further, if the agencies who are set to benefit from this service see the merit from the outset, then why have they not contributed in advance to the running costs?

I just want to make it clear that I am fully supportive of a Crisis Intervention Service but like many others across this city & beyond I want to make sure it’s done right, this is too serious and too sensitive an issue to play games with.

In the absence of clarity I would take this opportunity to ask the following questions:

Has work on this Co-design Community Plan started?

How can you evaluate something properly over a period of 6 months when it takes time for any new service to bed in?

What is the actual nature of the service and what is considered low threshold in this case?

Will this service prove sufficient in terms of the need identified? This with the initial scoping exercise by council following on from a high-profile campaign for a Detox Facility.

Has this service been modeled on evidence based practice?

How will the success of this project be measured, what are the Key Performance Indicators?

How will this service be any different to what is currently on offer?

Foyle Search and Rescue offer a Community Crisis Intervention Suicide Prevention Programme. As such, how will this service differ?

Has the University (Ulster University) undertaken to carry out this evaluation free of charge? If not, what money has been allocated for this? Or will this expenditure come from the current £50,000 funding budget?

Has consideration been given to how operating on a relatively small budget could have an adverse effect on the quality of service and the final evaluation?

Essentially, will £50,000 cover sufficient levels of staffing and additional running costs? If so please provide a breakdown in line with Council’s business plan.

As part of the overall initiative will Council place an added focus on courses such as Safe Talk, Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASSIST) for the wider North-West community? This to build on the excellent work carried out by the Derry Healthy Cities CLEAR Project

From a personal point of view, with a small budget and a lot hinging on a positive final evaluation after six months my concern is that any chance of a sufficient long-term sustainable service will be reduced.

In the past, I have asked related questions of council only to be told that my questions would need to be answered by the preferred service provider, which is a nonsense, with council having a lead role in this project.

I would now call on Derry and Strabane District Council, the North-West Addiction Task Force and the local MP Elisha McCallion who has worked on this ‘tooth and nail’ to provide answers.

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…

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Desperately Seeking Sense

Blogging in these parts can become quite tiresome and repetitive when you consider what passes for political progress here. This is why I constantly find myself highlighting diatribe, dissolution and deadlock, and that's on a good day.

With Westminster now dissolved and the Stormont talks postponed until after the upcoming general election we in the north are without governance, which some would argue is no bad thing. However this aside, with the halting of the 'crucial' talks at Stormont to facilitate a Westminster election are we right to assume that Britain will again be playing the main role in breaking the deadlock and dealing with outstanding issues such as the past? Of course we are, with some politicians here always keen to abdicate the little responsibility they have particularly when it comes to contentious issues which could lose them votes.

Nineteen months ago Sinn Fein & DUP handed devolved welfare responsibility back to Westminster resulting in the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Act, something they now deny. This act gave Westminster the power to implement Universal Credit which is to be introduced gradually in the north from September 25th 2017. Universal credit is a new payment for people of working age who are unemployed or on a low income. This payment  will replace existing benefits including Job Seekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit.

With the Stormont assembly still defunct the question now is how will they bring in legislation to cover the additional mitigation payments required for people who will be worse off under universal credit? As whilst the gravy train rolls on at Stormont those at the bottom await yet another blow as a consequence of austerity by proxy.

In addition to this is the ongoing threat of benefit sanctions. The Steps 2 Success Programme (work/beg for your benefit) which involves a mandatory time-frame of 52 weeks for claimants unemployed between 9-12 months saw 5333 participants between October 2014 and August 2016 face benefit sanctions. The majority of these sanctions were imposed upon people who failed to turn up for interview with their Steps 2 Success advisor. Within this programme sanctions involve the withdrawal of Jobs Seekers Allowance from 2-26 weeks depending on the breach. Now to give an example of a reason that people face sanction. A man had a job interview and tried to sign on early because the interview time clashed with his appointment to see his 'advisor'. What saved this person from being forced into financial difficulty was the fact that he got the job, many others are not as lucky.

In contrast, between 2014 and 2016 the three external providers of the Steps 2 Success Programme, Ingeus UK, People Plus and Reed in Partnership fell short in relation to key performance indicators with their overall performance regarded as unsatisfactory. Yet I doubt these substantially well paid private companies faced sanctions. So the next time someone tells you Stormont is working tell them to ask a person who is not.

Steps 2 Success Summary Statistics Oct 2014 - Sep 2016

And on the subject of sanctions, two local welfare rights advisory groups in Derry, the Rosemount Resource Centre and Galliagh Women's group recently lost their advice provider contracts with Derry and Strabane District Council. For the most part these contracts were lost due to a failure to meet the criteria laid down for customer information collation. That this loss can be justified at a time of economic despair and in a city with a high unemployment rate beggars belief.

In a report published by the investigative website the the North was to be the region hardest hit by welfare reform, with yes you guessed it Derry to top the list. In their article the states 'Derry tops the table with an estimated loss of £900 a year for every adult of working age'.

Let's look at the cuts to the advice services a few ways. Firstly, I'm sure we're not talking vast sums of money and secondly not even a month ago the Council passed a motion at its monthly meeting demanding that the Department for Communities make monies available to deal with the forecast increase in appeals as a result of Welfare Reform. Still council make the decision to reduce five service providers to three with no avenue of appeal available. Now considering these cuts to services are over the collation of some information it's not beyond reason to think Council could have demonstrated a common sense approach especially with council's own procedures being far from flawless.

In an external review of Derry and Strabane District Council's awarding of security contracts carried out by 'On Board Training and Consultancy Limited' in 2015 the report concluded that the procurement process consisted of: 'Weak guidance for those involved in procurements, a lack of standard documentation, it lacked central control and oversight to procurement and laxed supervision all of which exposed DCC to significant risk over many years'.

And if you think that's bad the report further included recommendations on how council could improve  'the handling of complaints, Freedom of Information Requests, Data protection, whistle-blowing and conflicts of interest, with control weaknesses found across these fundamental control areas'. Still this council saw fit to withdraw support from two community groups for less.

At the launching of the community plan on June 4th 2015 in line with local government reform the following was issued in a statement on the council website: 'At the heart of the Community Planning process is the commitment to enhancing the delivery of public services to ensure we are improving the well-being of all our citizens, and the plan will set out to address the specific needs of the city and district as identified by the people who live here.' With community planning an important part of council's remit I can't help but wonder if they have given any thought to the impact the removal of these two welfare rights services will have on their service users and the people who live in these areas. Probably not!

When you consider that those in Stormont have hardly warmed their seats and local government seems intent on hammering services that will help support those who stand to be most impacted by the Stormont sanctioned Tory implemented cuts the question we must ask is who benefits? It's not the person facing benefit sanctions, benefit cuts or the person losing their disability benefits, nor is it the third sibling who is to be denied support under the changes to child tax credit. As always it's those at the top with the finger always pointing down the ways when it comes to saving money.

I think it's time for Derry City & Strabane Council to prove it's worth. They can bring all the tall ships, Fleadhs and Clipper festivals they want, but when they cut front-line community based services that should be a line in the sand for any right thinking person. I hope when the politicians come asking for your vote you ask them if they intend to lobby Derry City & Strabane Council over their cuts to these services, I know I will.

It's  never too late to hold your hands up and say ok, let's see how we can fix this, but it takes courage and leadership... over to you Derry City & Strabane District Council.

Friday, 17 March 2017

In the Aftermath

Thanks to Knox and Riddell

A few weeks ago I made the decision to avoid blogging as with the anger I was feeling over the political situation here there was a strong chance that I could have ended up being arrested and charged under malicious communications legislation. As such, I thought it best to avoid the keyboard, that was until this morning when I was overcome by a strong need to clear my throat, metaphorically speaking of course.

The last Stormont election which took place a fortnight ago has resulted in, surprise surprise, further talks at Stormont. If these talks fail in that a resolution cannot be reached in respect of the 'playing chicken' stalemate stemming from the 'cash for ash' scandal then we could potentially face another election in six weeks, well according to the British Secretary of State for the north James Brokenshire. But between you & me I don't take him too seriously, does anyone? He's got one of them wee smug bakes that irritates.

Despite this, at this juncture I feel compelled to remind Mr Brokenshire of the very poignant words of Albert Einstein who believed that 'doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result' was a sign of insanity, but then the same could be said to some of the electorate here!

Mr Brokenshire also tells us of the need for the truth in respect of the troubles yet fails to mention how he plans to use the national security card to conceal the full extent of the British state's role in the conflict. Well, outside of the 10% of deaths they do claim, a figure which doesn't include deaths that the state had prior knowledge of, turned a blind eye to or played an indirect role in through their agents and security services, you know the type, the 'Stakeknives' and similar ilk.

Following the election Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill called for the implementation of legacy aspects of the Stormont House Agreement. This agreement later made redundant by the introduction of the Fresh Start Agreement on November 17th 2015 consisted of proposals which were quickly shelved when it was exposed that they included a five year plan to draw a line under the past, rewrite the past and cover the States' role in the conflict via the national security card.

Mechanisms proposed under the Stormont House Agreement:

The Historical Investigations Unit was the proposed investigatory body to deal with troubles related cases. This body was to have a lifespan of five years. Ideally this would have been a mechanism free from state interference and with international oversight where possible. However, the Historical Investigations Unit was set to include those who served in policing and security roles in the north during the troubles. In addition to this, the Secretary of State was to have the power to veto information disclosure as well as the authority to remove the HIU at his/her discretion. Moreover, within the previous proposals, the First and Deputy First Minsters were set to hold the power to resign or retire the HIU director. Independent? I think not! Do you?

The Independent Commission for Information Retrieval was to provide families with answers over the deaths of their loved ones, yet those going forward in the hope of getting answers would receive limited information in line with requirements under article two of the European Convention. Contributors to this process would do so on the understanding that their information would not be admissible in Civil, Criminal and Coronial proceedings. Leaving contributors to this process immune from prosecution unless the same evidence was to be disclosed elsewhere.

The Oral History Archive was said to provide people the opportunity to tell their story either presently or to have it released at a time of their choosing. Those tasked with writing these accounts were to be trained on how to record the stories.

The Implementation and Reconciliation Group was later removed despite being an integral element of the proposals. The IRG proved quite contentious when it was rumored to be the mop which would clean up the remainder of issues outstanding after a five year period. With the IRG quickly sidelined at that point, plans are now underway in Whitehall to legislate to limit troubles related inquests to five years and ensure that soldiers over a certain age will remain immune from legal challenge.

Whilst there's no disputing the need to deal with the past unless things change dramatically from last time round then I think it's fair to say that with the above proposals in conjunction with the current plans in Whitehall then we can expect a process which is not independent, one-sided with the truth (national security card) and selective in the administration of justice. And how anyone can sell these proposals as anything different simply beggars belief. And whilst dealing with the past, the ongoing legacy impacting through inter-generational trauma also needs addressed. As previously highlighted in my blogs the levels of mental illness identified in other post-conflict zones have been less than here in the North. So unless dealing with the past means creating a positive future for people then I'd suggest they need to go back to the drawing board.

With the above issues at the forefront of the latest crisis agenda we are just weeks away from cuts to child tax credits. These cuts will see the family element of CTC removed for new claimants. The basic family element of CTC currently stands at an annual rate of £545. Added to this is the new plan to support two children with a third born after April 2017 to be denied financial support a move which is not only discriminatory but gives a whole new meaning to taking food from the mouths of the most vulnerable in our society.

Still the silence of the politicians remains deafening with the exception of Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson who has recently shown signs of hysteria over Brexit during a meeting in Brussels. Whilst I share Martina Anderson's frustration I would take this opportunity to remind her on how the Brexit outcome was reached via a democratic referendum. This is more than can be said for welfare reform (welfare budgetary cuts) which is being thrust upon people who were assured it would be opposed at all costs.

I have to say what I thought was nearly as funny as Martina's wee rant to a big empty room was DUP MP Gavin Robinson's comments in which he described Anderson's behaviour as 'belligerent' adding... 'It's the Good Friday Agreement that sets the terms for the future of Northern Ireland.' Now considering Gavin's party opposed the GFA and never actually signed up to the agreement does anyone else smell a wee waft of hypocrisy?

Now back to benefit cuts. Some Stormont party supporters would argue that the parties responsible had little choice whereas I say they took the easy way out and at a time they were claiming to want responsibility over monetary matters. Realistically, how can you argue for added responsibility when you shirk and hand back responsibility? The answer is with great difficulty! Meanwhile the ordinary people struggling to make ends meet are set to struggle further as a consequence of yet more deals beyond reason and doubt.

In June last year the Disability Living Allowance which has a high number of claimants in the north was replaced with the Personal Independence Payment. This change immediately applied to new claimants and those between the ages of 16-64 subject to review.

Other claimants with indefinite or lifetime DLA awards will be randomly selected for assessment and invited to claim PIP. This payment is a lot more difficult to obtain not least by the fact that it consists of two rates as opposed to the three under DLA and with the test for eligibility being a lot more stringent.

There are also plans to remove PIP entitlement from those suffering from mental ill health and anxiety with the argument being that people with mental illness whose mobility is severely impacted by their condition, can't be considered in the same context as those with a physical disability, personally I've never heard such utter tripe, but I suppose nothing surprises me.

In the north those who lose the benefit under the Personal Independence Payment scheme may qualify for a supplementary payment at a reduced rate for one year. After that who knows how they will manage?

Mitigation is also available with the Bedroom Tax which will come into force in 2020 providing the scheduled review in 2018 is successful. When the bedroom tax is introduced families with an extra bedroom under the current criteria will have to pay for this from their benefit or move to a smaller dwelling which may not always be possible due to the shortage of social housing in this city and beyond. So potentially, we could see people being penalised for a lack of social build.

What angers me in this is some people continue to sell/view the period of mitigation as a bonus. Well I don't, this should not be happening. In all honesty how do you address poverty with a benefits system that does not provide adequately and penalises the poorest? The answer is you can't.

In a letter published in the Independent doctors from Britain’s leading mental health organisations said that an urgent review of benefit sanctions was needed due to the rising rates of mental health problems as a consequence. What must be noted is, the sanctions being imposed do not prove cost effective nor do they improve the chances of people finding employment. And what people need to keep in mind is how many decent jobs are out there that will move people out of the benefits trap and into a position beyond just about managing?

One of the words often bandied about here in the North is equality, and the recent election campaign saw the 'e' word come up quite a lot in reference to a range of inequalities. Surprisingly, what wasn't mentioned was a report recently released by the Samaritans entitled 'Dying from Inequality'. This is a report into socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour. Whilst no study has proven that poverty causes suicide the report complied by the Samaritans highlighted how suicide is 2 and 3 times more common in the most deprived areas than in the more affluent. With numerous reports showing a link between unemployment and suicide, these cannot be dismissed, neither can the suicide rate increase which married up with the 2008 financial crisis. Yet despite the suicide rate continuing to increase, many of the contributing factors remain unchallenged.

In the aftermath of a peace process, we're subjected to rants to empty halls in Europe, to a so called Government that the term dysfunctional couldn't even begin describe, the health service is in crisis, the education system is in crisis, and Arlene's ineptitude has the potential to saddle us with an additional £500 million debt. 

Furthermore, dealing with the past shouldn't just mean a dirty cover up it should mean cherishing all the children of the nation equally, past, present & future. Nero may have fiddled as Rome burned, but as the RHI scandal continues to smolder it's not just cash going up in smoke, it's people's hopes and aspirations.

The peace process is often compared for some reason to South Africa, maybe instead of trying to draw a comparison between here and South Africa those elected to public office should take inspiration from one of the architects of the south African peace process Nelson Mandela who said;

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right. The right to dignity and a decent life.”