Saturday, 17 December 2011

It's good to talk

Some folk rely on surveys and focus groups and others rely on the views of commentators and pundits but I always like to hear what real ordinary folk think about issues of the day and there is only one way to do that - get out and talk to them.

Over the past few weeks I have attended a lot of community events and they have been a great opportunity to chat to people about a wide range of political events.  Normally I do not do much shopping but over the last few days I have been 'coerced' into the shops by my wife and here again people stop to talk about political matters.

Some were concerned about Europe, with the general view that we would be better out of the EU altogether, while others were concerned about local issues.  Not surprisingly the behaviour of the Belfast Lord Mayor was raised by quite a number of people.  In general they are not the sort of people who go to protests and they do not join groups on Facebook.  However they have their opinions and their views on Niall O Donnghaile are absolutely clear.

They thought that his behaviour was appalling, especially as it was directed towards a young girl, and they can't wait to see his year over.  They also said that unionist councillors were absolutely right not to accept his first half-hearted attempt at an apology.  They said that their unionist councillors were right to hold the line and force Sinn Fein into a proper apology, with a public commitment that this would never happen again. 

We are often told that it is good to talk and talking to the people in our constituencies, especially the people who vote for us, is fundamental to politics.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Almost 4 million children in UK have no books

According to a recent newspaper report (News Letter 5 December 2011) 3.8 million children in the United Kingdom do not own a book.

The latest report by the National Literacy Trust, based on a survey of 18,000 children, reveals that a third of them do not have books of their own.  Ten years ago the figure was one child in ten but now it is one in three and so the figure is rising.  Moreover, children from poorer families are more likely to miss out and boys are more likely to be without books than girls.

Yes today children have access to information in a wide varety of ways, with new technologies emerging all the time, but the figure is a cause for concern.  Literacy is a basic skill and it is essential if a child is to attain its full potential in life.

I have always enjoyed owning and reading books, indeed my house has books in almost every room, with one room devoted entirely to them.  At times my wife can get annoyed when she falls over piles of books or has to move some of them to get access to a table, but she is very tolerant, most of the time!  That love for books goes back to my early years and has stayed with me ever since. 

For me, no visit to a town or village is complete without a visit to the local bookshop, wherever there is one, and probably a visit to the library as well.

My parents bought books for me and I got books as prizes in school and Sunday School.  Many of them were beautiful books written and published with boys in mind and beautifully illustrated.  They were an important part of my life and I gained hours of pleasure from them.

Even before I could read my parents took the time to sit down and read to me.  Books were always part of our home and there were regular visits to the library.  Those experiences introduced me to books at an early age and helped cultivate a love for reading.

About a year ago I visited Dungiven for the opening of the new library and one of the other speakers was a writer from Londonderry who spoke in similar terms of her experience of books and libraries in her childhood.  Her experience of books and libraries as a child had a profound influence on her and led to her career in writing.  She spoke of the library as a magical place that opened up new worlds for her to explore. 

So here are a few suggestions:
  1. At this time of year, as we select presents for children, picking a book that is interesting and attractive can be a good choice. 
  2. Children often copy adults, so a reading adult sets a good example to a child.
  3. It is good for parents to spend time with their children and to interact with them.  There is no better way to do that than sitting down to read to a child or read with a child.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Sinn Fein propagandists

Sinn Fein propagandists, such as Jim Gibney in The Irish News (8 December) have been busy weighing in behind Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile.  They have not directly tried to justify what he did, when he refused to hand over a Duke of Edinburgh award to a young Army Cadet.  They know that Martin McGuinness has already admitted that O Donnghaile was wrong and they can't very well disagree with Martin.  However they have been busy attacking unionist politicians and attacking the British Army, hoping that they can divert the focus of attention away from Niall's little disaster.

Jim Gibney engages in a bit of propagandist nonsense, claiming that the union flag has been 'flying illegally for more than 20 years ... on top of Belfast City Hall'  Now that is simply nonsense.  There is nothing 'illegal' about the flying of the union flag.

Gibney also indulges in a popular pastime for Sinn Feiners and that is trying to demoralise unionists, while at the same time boosting the morale of republicans.
There is a battle taking place inside the city hall, led mainly by Sinn Fein councillors, to secure institutional recognition of the cultural tradition of the nationalist people of Belfast.  This battle has been caused by the unionist parties' refusal to voluntarily accept symbols and emblems associated with nationalists on public display inside and outside the city hall.
Unionists might bluster as they did at the city hall about the mayor's handling of the Duke of Edinburgh awards.  But the winds of change continue blowing through that particular chamber.  Before the night was over the unionist (sic) lost a vote to erect an Irish language sign.  And that is the enduring and unending story - unionists continue to resist to no avail.
This is rather like the repeated claims by Sinn Fein that a 'United Ireland' is inevitable.  It is propaganda designed to demoralise unionists by suggesting that there is nothing they can do and that it is not worth trying.  The only thing that is inevitable is death.  There is nothing inevitable about a 'United Ireland' and indeed it is less popular than ever but that does not stop Sinn Feiners trotting out the old line time and time again.

Jim Gibney has been at it in The Irish News and Martin O'Muilleoir has been at it in the Andersonstown News.  Of course no sensible unionist will believe a word of it.  I don't believe Gerry Adams when he says he was never in the IRA, I don't believe him when he says a 'United Ireland' is inevitable and I don't believe his acolytes when they tell me this or that is 'inevitable'.

However this smug and patronising attitude from Sinn Fein is certainly poisoning the atmosphere in the City Hall.

I have talked to many moderate unionists over the past few weeks and the behaviour of the Lord Mayor, along with Sinn Fein demands to take down the union flag, has certainly antagonised them.

Ethnic cleansing along the border

On Sunday afternoon I was in Lisnaskea parish church for the funeral of the father of my party colleague Arlene Foster.  During the service the minister reminded us that her father had served in both the B Specials and the RUC.  He had lived out in the country near Rosslea but after the IRA attempted to murder him he had to move in to Lisnaskea.  He carried the scar from an IRA bullet until the day he died.

At the end of the funeral, as I was coming out of the church, I noticed a memorial to ten UDR soldiers who had been murdered by the IRA.  It was a solemn reminder of the intensity of the IRA's terrorist campaign in that part of Ulster and of the many who had given their lives to preserve law and order in the face of republican terrorism.

The funeral left Lisnaskea and went out to the graveyard at St Mark's parish church at Aghadrumsee, close to the border with the Irish Republic.  The little church sits up on a hill and beside it there is a primary school and there is also an Orange hall.  As we waited to speak to the members of the family I noticed two graves close to the door of the church.  One was that of an RUC officer, who had been murdered by the IRA, and the other was that of a UDR officer, who had also been murdered by IRA terrorists.  There were other memorials inside the church.

The graves at Aghadrumsee and the memorial in Lisnaskea remind us of the campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the IRA in that border community.  It was a systematic and sectarian campaign designed to drive the minority Protestant community out of that area.

I doubt very much if anyone has been tried for those crimes but are they not worthy of the same attention as the murder of Pat Finucane or any of the other high profile deaths?  Republicans demand to know the truth but here is a truth they would prefer to keep hidden.  They are trying very hard to rewrite history but the memorials in churches and graveyards tell the true story of the Troubles. 

Monday, 12 December 2011

An early use of the term Scotch-Irish

In his Colonial New York: A History (p 238), Professor Michael Kammen describes the growth of Presbyterianism in New York.
The years between 1745 and 1760 were years of rapid growth for the Presbyteriana - growth based upon the influx of groups quite diverse in social origin.  There were Puritans from New England and Log Island, Scots-Irish immigrants from abroad, converts drifting in from the divided Dutch Reformed communities, and members such as the Livingstons from intermarriage between Scottish and Dutch families settled in the colony since the seventeenth century.  Such amalgamation could not occur without strife.  Pemberton's congregation in New York City, for example, had received by mid-century an influx of what Mrs Pemberton described as 'bigotted Scotch Irish Presbyterians.'  When the elders and deacons suggested introducing Isaac Watts's version of the Psalms (then widely used in New England) instead if the various versions causing some confusion in New York services, they urged that anyone who objected bring the matter to Pemberton. The newcomers decided instead to organize themselves as the 'Scotch Presbyterian Society' and formally charged the minister with neglecting the Westminster catechism when he administered baptism, failing to pray at burials when so requested by the family, and permitting the singing of anthems. Although Pemberton resigned in 1753 and moved to Boston for the remainder of his career, the Presbyterians of New York grew steadily in strength and numbers anyway.
Rev Ebenezer Pemberton was born in Boston and pastored the First Presbyterian Church in New York for 26 years.  During his tenure, the great revivalist George Whitefield came to the city to preach and Pemberton was the only minister to open his pulpit to him.  Whitefield preached there many times and drew vast crowds.  after his years in New york Pemberton returned to Boston and pastored the New Brick Church until his death in 1777.

The quote from his wife about the 'bigotted Scotch Irish' is taken from a letter she wrote in 1755.  The Pemebertons were 'new light' Presbyterians whereas it seems that the Scotch-Irish were mainly 'old light.  This reflects a wider theological division in Presbyterians.  Both sides were very committed to their position and Mrs Pemberton regarded those who opposed her husband as bigoted.  It is also noteworthy that she described them as Scotch-Irish.  This is another of the early examples of the use of the term Scotch-Irish.

Jane McCrea

Recently I bought a book entitled Colonial New York: A History by Michael Kammen.  In it I came across a reference to a woman named Jane McCrea:
In 1777 the scene of action shifted upstate.  On the military side, Burgoyne invaded New York from Quebec on June 1.  A series of actions during July went largely in England's favour: the conquests of Ticonderoga, Skenesborough, and Fort Anne.  The brutal murder of Jane McCrea by Burgoyne's Indian allies on July 27, however, did much to galvanize the Mohawk Valley farmers into action.  General Schuyler found that recruiting became easier, and his army swelled in size.
The murder of Jane McCrea was obviously a significant event in the course of the war but who was this young woman? 

Jane McCrea (1752-1777) was one of the younger children in the large family of Rev James McCrea of New Jersey and his wife Catherine Rosebrugh and her family was thoroughly Presbyterian and Ulster-Scots on both sides.

Her father James McCrea, a Presbyterian minister and an Ulster-Scot, was born in Lifford in county Donegal and emigrated from Ulster to America with his father, William McCrea, who was an elder in White Clay Creek Church, near Newark, Delaware.  James McCrea trained for the ministry at the Log College, which was founded by another Ulster-Scot, Rev William Tennent.  Her mother Catherine, also an Ulster-Scot, was the daughter of Rev Robert Rosebrugh and niece of Rev John Rosebrugh.

After the death of her mother and the remarriage of her father, she lived with her brother John near Saratoga, New York, and there she became engaged to David Jones.  When the War of Independence started three of her brothers joined the revolutionary army but her fiance fled with other loyalists to Quebec. The war divided the McCrea family with some of the brothers serving on the loyalist side.

During the summer of 1777, as John Burgoyne's expedition neared the Hudson River, Colonel John McCrea took up his duty with a regiment of the Albany County militia.  Meanwhile her fiance was serving as a lieutenant in one of the loyalist militia units accompanying Burgoyne and he was stationed at Fort Ticonderoga, after it was captured.

Jane McCrea left her brother's home and set off to join her fiance at Ticonderoga.  She reached the village beside the old Fort Edward and was staying at the home of Sara McNeil, who was a loyalist and an elderly cousin to the British General Simor Fraser.

On the morning of 27 July 1777 a group of Indians, an advance party from Burgoyne's army, descended on the village of Fort Edward.  The two women were taken captive and they were separated.  According to the traditional account, there was a quarrel among the Indians as they were bringig Jane to the British camp and one of them killed and scalped her.  She had beautiful long hair and later her distinctive scalp was recognised.

News of her death was published in Pennsylvania on 11 August and in Virginia on 22 August and the story spread across America.  Her death and those of others in similar raids inspired some of the resistance to Burgoyne's invasion, leading to his defeat at the Battle of Saratoga.

The story of Jane McCrea became part of American folklore and an anonymous poet wrote The Ballad of Jane McCrea, which was set to music and became a popular folk song.  John Vanderlyn painted a picture of the death of Jane McCrea in 1803 and this and James Fenimore Cooper described similar events in his book The Last of the Mohicans.

Jane McCrea's body was first buried outside Fort Edward and a monument at the site marks that original grave.  Her remains were later moved to the Union Cemetery at Fort Edward and they were moved a third time to the new Union Cemetery, which lies between Fort Edward and Sandy Hill.
  1. Alexander Macrae, The History of the Clan Macrae: Dingwall, 1910
  2. William Leete Stone, Ballads and Poems Relating to the Burgoyne Campaign: Albany, 1893
  3. Richard Webster, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America: 1858
  4. Jane McCrea, Notable American Women

Saturday, 10 December 2011

An 'off day' for Alf McCreary

Several evenings this week I have been at community meetings with DUP councillors from the Castle area.  Then this morning I was in our constituency office at Ballysillan to catch up on some paperwork.  The two DUP councillors from the Oldpark area were there as well, meeting a some residents from Carr's Glen Park about a number of issues.  That was on top of the normal round of council meetings, DPP meetings and partnership board meetings.  Politics is not a 9 to 5 job and it is not a five days a week job either.  It requires real commitment and long hours and a six day week are not unusual.

I was disappointed therefore by an article in the Belfast Telegraph tonight in which the 'churches correspondent' Alf McCreary painted a thoroughly disparaging picture of Belfast councillors.  He ended the article by describing them as 'mostly ridiculous' and saying that 'Belfast people deserve better'.

Yes, I am sure we could all do better and that includes journalists as well as politicians but I think his comments were unfair and unfounded.  Our politicians are very much a reflection of the people and I suppose that is how it should be.  We live in a deeply divided society and it is not surprising that our societal differences are played out from time to time in the council chamber, just as they are played out in other spheres.

There are good councillors as well as poor councillors and some are mediocre but to describe them as 'mostly ridiculous' is a sweeping condemnation and is simply untrue.  I expected better from a churches correspondent'.

Alf McCreary's article was developed around a debate about an Irish language sign but it was clear that he had not understood or else had chosen to ignore the context of the debate, for he did not mention it at all.  Earlier in the meeting all parties had agreed an aproach to contended cultural issues, such as the Irish language, but later in the meeting three parties, the two nationalist parties and Alliance, decided to ignore that decision in relation to the Irish language signage.

The article was patronising and served to demonstrate that all of us, including Alf McCreary, have our 'off days'.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Alcohol abuse

Last weekend I came across several newspaper articles about the effects of alcohol abuse.

Ministers pledge to stop booze ads aimed at young
Officials at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in London have reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring that alcoholic drinks are not targeted at young people.  'It is imperative that we have robust, evidence-based alcohol advertising rules in place to ensure appropriate levels of consumer protection, especially for children and young people.'
The pledge comes after calls from doctors to introduce new curbs on alcohol advertising.  In an open letter to The Guardian, a team of consultants said people in Britain were facing an 'epidemic' of liver disease caused by a binge-drinking culture and cheap booze.
Figures showed medics in north-east England were struggling with a 400 per cent increase in the number of hospital admissions for people in their early thirities with alcoholic liver disease.  In the open letter the consultants, mostly liver specialists and gastoenterologists, blamed the problem on Britain having created 'an excessively pro-alcohol culture by selling alcohol for pocket money prices.'
[Irish News 3 December 2011]

Rise in morning-after drink-drive accidents
Morning after drink-drive accidents have risen by 60 per cent because drivers remain ignorant about how long alcohol stays in their system.  Night-time crashes have fallen over the past ten years as drink-drive campaign messages get through but analysis of the official statistics shows that 18.2 per cent of all accidents caused by drink-driving in 2010 occurred between 5 am, when many people would be driving to work, and 1 pm.  This compares with 11.4 per cent in 2000 and only 6.9% in 1990. 
Hunter Abbott, the managing director of AlcoSense said, 'If you drank four pints of medium strong beer or four large glasses of wine between 9 pm and midnight, it could take as long as 14.8 hours for the alcohol to leave your system.  You could easily still be over the limit at 11 am the following day.' 
[Daily Telegraph  2 December 2011]

Surge in cocaine use has been side effect of 24-hour drinking, says drugs officer
The drugs coordinator for Kent Police said that the introduction of 24-hour drinking led to a rise in cocaine use so people can 'stay awake' .   The most common excuse for taking the Class A drug since 2005 has been to not fall asleep or 'keep going on a night out'.  PC Adrian Parsons also disclosed that up to one in ten bank notes, when tested, was found to contain traces of cocaine, compared with around four per cent six years ago - a signal of the rising popularity of the drug. 
[Daily Telegraph 2 December 2011]

Across the United Kingdom there is a serious and growing problem of alcohol abuse and it is causing terrible damage to the health of many people.  That situation must be addressed and we do well to listen to the advice of those doctors and other experts who deal with the effects of alcohol abuse.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Earl of Antrim and his Scottish tenants

There is a good article tonight in the Belfast Telegraph about Hector McDonnell, an artist who grew up in Glenarm Castle and whose father was the Earl of Antrim.

The article recalls some of the history of this old Ulster family and includes an important point about the Scottish settlement of Antrim and Down at the start of the 17th century.
The present Glenarm Castle, which sits within one of the oldest estates in Northern Ireland, was begun by the 1st Earl of Antrim, Sir Randal McDonnell,  in 1636.  McDonnell became an important figure in the Plantation of Ulster, settling his estate with large numbers of Protestants from the Scottish lowlands.
Sir Randal McDonnell was the leading Roman Catholic landowner in Ulster and yet he brought Scottish Protestants across to Ulster as his tenants.  This is an aspect of the Scottish settlement which is little known and yet these Scottish settlers were among the earliest Ulster-Scots.

The Belfast Telegraph article refers to 'the Plantation of Ulster', but the official plantation, which began around 1610, did not include Antrim Down.  Unofficial Scottish settlement had already started in Down in 1606, under Sir James Hamilton and Sir Hugh Montgomery, and that settlement has been described as the Scottish 'bridgehead' in Ulster.

The Scottish settlement is often portrayedby Irish nationalists and republicans as Scottish Protestants 'stealing' land from Roman Catholics but in the case of the later Scottish settlement under the Earl of Antrim, it was a wealthy and powerful Roman Catholic landlord who brought lowland Scottish Protestants across as his tenants on his estate.  That is a very different story and one that corrects some of the Irish nationalist narrative of that time.

A small step by Sinn Fein

During my time in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure I held an annual  reception at Stormont to celebrate the success of Ulster sportsmen and women and each year this included young folk from the GAA.

I have criticised aspects of the GAA and will continue to urge that organisation to embrace the vision of a shared and better future.  However the young folk from the GAA were treated in exactly the same way as all the others.  I did not snub anyone or discriminate against them.

I was thinking of those and other events when I reflected on the recent controversy about the way in which the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast snubbed a young Army Cadet.

Hopefully, however, Sinn Fein have learned a lesson and that is a small step forward.  The Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile made a sort of 'apology' last Thursday but then appeared to backtrack when he refused to answer a journalist who asked what he would do in such a situation in the future.

However yesterday Cllr Jim McVeigh, the leader of the Sinn Fein group on the council, was pressed about it on the Nolan  Show and he said that it wouln't happen again.  Then in the afternoon Martin McGuinness commented on the matter in the Assembly.  After those statements there can be no going back by Sinn Fein.  The next time there is a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor he or she will not snub an Army Cadet and will present an award.

I welcome that small step and it has been a hard lesson for them because it has certainly tarnished Niall O'Donnghaile's carefully polished image.  It is only a small step and Sinn Fein have still a long journey ahead of them but every journey is made up of single steps.

During his presidential campaign in the Irish Republic Martin McGuinness said that if elected he would meet Her Majesty the Queen and now Sinn Fein have said they would present an award to an Army Cadet.  The common factor in these cases is that progress came in response to pressure.  Martin Mcguinness was pressed by the media in the Irish Republic and Niall O'Donnghaile was pressed by unionist councillors.  That is the lesson for public, press and politicians and it is one that we should all remember.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The role of the Communist Party

Over the weekend my attention was drawn by two separate newspaper articles.

The first was an obituary in the Irish News for Paddy Murphy (1940-2011), who died on 17 November.  After serving in the Eire Army and then the British Army he joined the IRA.  According to the obituary:
The 1970s and 1980s saw Paddy eke out a living in a variety of jobs and he found expression for his socialist and internationalist  instincts in the Communist Party of Ireland as well as joining Sinn Fein and becoming active in republicanism.
He lived in Ardoyne and was 'an active communist who regularly went to Mass'.  He was also 'a fluent Irish speaker with a passion for Russian history'.  In 1989 the police raided his house and seized a wheelie bin full of explosives.  Paddy Murphy was sentenced to eight years in prison and served his time in Magilligan.

The second article was about Ciaran Farrell, a brother of the notorious IRA terrorist Mairead Farrell.  Ciaran pleaded guilty  to providing the get-away car for the dissident republicans who bombed Newry courthouse last year.  However this reminded me that Mairead Farrell had another brother Niall Farrell, who was a senior member of the Communist Party of Ireland.

The role of the Communist Party in the Troubles, especially its association with Irish republicanism, is one that has received only limited attention but it is one that is worthy of research.  The party is very small but some of its members have played a significant role in the events of the past forty years.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A poisoned atmosphere in City Hall

The actions of Belfast's Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile and the way that he snubbed a young Army Cadet are but one aspect of a rather unpleasant atmosphere that Sinn Fein has introduced into Belfast City Council.

At the local government elections in May there was a significant change in the team of Sinn Fein councillors and this has resulted in a much more abrasive approach which is poisoning the atmosphere.

Sinn Fein are the largest party but they have only 16 of the 51 seats on the Council.  The DUP have 15, the SDLP have 8, Alliance have 6, the UUP have 3, the PUP have 2 and there is one Independent Unionist.  There are 24 nationalists (SF and SDLP) and 21 unionists (DUP, UUP, PUP and Ind U) and so the 6 Alliance councillors hold the balance of power.

Nevertheless Sinn Fein are trying to bully the Council into following a Sinn Fein agenda.  Moreover that is not just about symbolic or iconic issues such as the Union flag and the Irish language.  It is also about Council programmes and expenditure.

Sinn Fein want equality, which is something they often claim to espouse, set aside as they bully their way forward and the net result has been to poison the atmosphere in the Council.

And another view on Niall

In a letter to the News Letter on Saturday (3 December) the writer addressed the 'disgraceful and discriminatory' action of Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile in refusing to hand over a Duke of Edinburgh Award to a young girl who was a member of the Army Cadets.  The letter writer drew an interesting parallel:
Picking and choosing those to be honoured on the basis of political ideology reminds me of Hitler's refusal to present Olympic medals to black athletes in the 1936 Munich Olympic Games.  Such totalitarianism has no place in the new Northern Ireland and, unless the prejudice and discrimination meted out by Sinn Fein is challenged, then we are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Another view on Niall O'Donnghaile

In her regular column in the Belfast Telegraph tonight (5 December), Nuala McKeever commented on the 'non-apology' by Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile:
Well, its been a week of backhanded apologies .. First it was the Lord Mayor of Belfast.  He's had a rough week and is probably considering renaming the position 'Nightmare' as opposed to Lord Mayor.
Niall O'Donnghaile refused to shake the hand of a young Army cadet at the Duke of Edinburgh Awards in the City Hall last week.
If he was in the running for consideration on an Olympic Mayoral Team, he'd probably just have missed the cut.  He turned up, he appeared able, but at the last hurdle, he backed off and got four points for a refusal.
But when the crowds complained, he 'apologised'.
That word is used rather too loosely.  Because when someone apologises, but it's clear that they don't actually think what they've done needs an apology, then it's not really an apology, is it?
He said he was sorry for offending the young girl and her family and was prepared to meet her and then to reassure them that his actions were 'nothing personal'.
Well doesn't that rather negate the apology right there and then?
Of course it was personal!  It was him.  It was her.  Then it was her and not him.  It was her and his stand-in.  There was a hand shake but not from the Lord Mayor.  His hand did not touch her hand.  His individual hand refused to touch her individual hand.  Can you get any more personal than that?

A bad week for Sinn Fein

Last week was a very bad week for Sinn Fein.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) confirmed that the IRA knew they would be targetting innocent civilians when they exploded the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bomb.  They dismissed IRA claims that the mssacre of civilians in November 1987 was a mistake.  The atrocity, perpetrated by the IRA, killed eleven people and another victim died after 13 years in a coma.  The front page headline in the Belfast Telegraph read 'Enniskillen: it was no mistake'. 

Another HET report, due to be released later this month, has confirmed that the IRA fired first when they attacked Loughgall RUC station in May 1987.  Sinn Fein have always claimed that the SAS fired first in the incident in which eight IRA terrorists were killed, along with an innocent civilian.  However the HET report has rejected that claim.

The third disaster for Sinn Fein was the PR disaster known as Niall O'Donnghaile, who is the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast.  When you are in a hole it is best to stop digging but not Niall.  When a Belfast Telegraph reporter asked him whether he would repeat his snub to a young Army Cadet he refused to answer.  The newspaper carried the story under the headline 'Embattled Lord Mayor refuses to rule out repeat of cadet snub' and it also carried a column on the subject by Malachi O'Doherty.

Niall failed the first test when he refused to hand over the award to the young cadet but instead of learning from that, he has done it again.  If his initial apology had been a sincere apology, rather than a carefully worded excuse for an apology, he would have been able to answer the Belfast Telegraph's question.  The fact that he didn't confirms what we suspected, that his 'apology' was not a real apology at all.  If you are really sincere when you apologise then you will seek to demonstrate that by not doing the same thing again and you will be able to say that.  Clearly Niall does not understand what an apology is.

Now Sinn Fein know the importance of PR and they take it very seriously.  But this past week has not gone well for them at all.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Gifts of the Wise Men

In the New Testament the wise men from the east came to Bethlehem and brought gifts for Jesus (Matthew 2:11).  They were wise men and they were also wealthy men for they brought expensive gifts.  It's hard to choose presents, they should be appropriate for the person, but the wise men were wise in their choice and each of their gifts was appropriate for Jesus.

Frankincense for the Son

Frankincense was obtained by cutting a particular tree and collecting the sap.  It is first mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 30:34-36 'Take for yourself spices with pure frankincense ... with it you shall make incense.'  There was an altar of incense in the Tabernacle and the Temple and the incense was an offering to God.

Jesus is the Son of God.  He is Emmanuel - God with us.  'The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us' (John 1:14).  In one of his hymns Charles Wesley wrote, 'Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.'  He is divine - only the Son of God could feed the hungry, raise the dead and calm the stormy sea.

Myrrh for the Saviour

Myrrh is an Aramaic word meaning 'bitter'.  There was myrrh at His birth, at His bleeding (Mark 15:23) and at His burial (John 19:39).  Myrrh speaks of death and He was born to die. 
   His name shall be Jesus, the angel told Mary,
   God's Son sent to save lost mankind from his sin.
   So let's tell the story of Christ and His glory.
   No time to lose, let's shout the news, He died to save.
The myrrh tree has many long thorns and they remind us of the crown of thorns that was placed on the head of Jesus at Calvary.  Myrrh was an appropriate gift for a Saviour who would die for the sin of the world.

Gold for the Sovereign

Gold is a gift for a Sovereign - a royal crown will always be made of gold.  Gold is mentioned only in Matthew, the gospel of the Sovereign, and it is mentioned five times.  Matthew records the question of the wise men, 'Where is he that is born king of the Jews?' (v 2)

In the Tabernacle and Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the golden altar of incense, the lampstand and the utensils were either made of pure gold or acacia wood covered with gold.  The streets of heaven are made of 'pure gold (Rev 21:18,21).

He is the king of kings and the lord of lords and He who came as Saviour will come again as Sovereign.  He who came in meekness will come again in majesty.  He who came in grace will come again in glory.  The government will be upon His shoulders and His reign will never end (Isaiah 9:6,7).

He is the Son, the Saviour and the Sovereign.  How important it is for each one of us to know Him personally as our Saviour and our Sovereign.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

John Wesley as a Social Reformer

This morning I spoke at a conference organised by the Community Faiths Forum in Belfast.  Afterwards I came across this paragraph in an article about the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and it has some relevance to the theme of the conference.  It was written by John Telford and is taken from his  book The Popular History of Methodism, which was published in 1897:

As a Social Reformer, Wesley was far in advance of his time.  He found work for the deserving poor, provided them with clothes and food in seasons of special distress, established a lending stock to to help struggling business men with loans.  He opened dispensaries in London and Bristol, and did everything he could to assist debtors who had been thrown into prison.  Some of the most stirring stories of Wesley's life are connected with these labours of love.  In visiting the prisons, in temeperance work, in care for the debtor, and in opposition to the slave trade, Wesley was far in advance of his time.  He was a lvoer of all good work, and a hearty supporter of those who were seeking to redress time-crying wrongs of the world.

Wherever he went, Wesley preached the gospel without fear or favour.  He spoke about the law of God and the sin of man and he also declared the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ but he also cared for the poor and needy.  He did not see a contradiction between the one and the other.  Rather his love for God led him to love others and to address their needs, spiritually and physically.

Many of the great social reformers of the past, such as Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce, were inspired to social action because of their saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Mortgage Debt Advice Service

Mortgage debt is a major problem today and so I was glad to receive an evaluation of the Mortgage Debt Advice Service, which is funded by the Department for Social Development.

During the first twelve months of the pilot a total of 755 clients, from every parrliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland, used the service and a total of 1,970 housing issues were addressed.  The service directly prevented homelessness for 180 clients and included representation work at Chancery Division of the High Court.

The service is operated by the Housing Rights Service and is good value for money.  The total cost of the pilot was just £97,625 and so the cost per client helped was just under £130.  However it is estimated that the service resulted in a saving of over £1.2 million to the public purse.  This is based on 180 clients avoiding homelessness, where a homelessness case costs £6,840.

This is a good example of a modest investment providing a major return and helping people who have fallen into mortgage debt are being helped week by week.

Unfortunately some people bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem will go away.  As a result they leave it ery late and the problem is harder to address.  Anyone affected by mortgage debt should contact the service at the earliest possible stage.  In that way they are more likely to have a good outcome.

Make the Call campaign

Recently I launched a Make the Call campaign, which started on 14 November and runs until the end of March 2012.  It includes television, radio, outdoor and community locations and is reinforced through regional and local press.  The campaign encourages older people to call a Freephone Benefits Advice Line to find out if there are benefits (social, security and wider), services and support they could be missing out on.  The freephone number is 0800 2321271.

The first 8 days of operation saw 2,378 calls to the Freephone line and 2,225 people availed of a full benefit assessment.  Of these, just under 1,000, almost 45%, had potential additional benefits identified.  Customers were given a range of choices about making a claim and those requirign assistance were offered this, with 50 requiring a home visit to help them with making a claim.

The media generating the most interest was television, which generated 65% of the calls, followed by newspapers, which generated 18.4%, with radio at 9.2%

We are keen to increase beenfit uptake and this campaign has got off to a good start.  As another winter approaches, I remain committed to ensuring that benefits are reaching those who are entitled and need them most. It is important that we continue to encourage people over 60, who may be entitled to receive additional benefits, to come forward and find out if they are missing out.

Last year over 1,300 people profited from a simple benefit check, with the average additional weekly payment totalling almost £50 per week. That amounted to almost £4million being generated in 2010/11 in additional benefits and arrears. This is a substantial amount that can make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our society.

I want older people to know that we are here to help them claim what they are entitled to and so I would encourage people to lift the phone and make the call.

Nialls wee phone call

One aspect of the controversy about Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile that has not received much attention is the fact that at some point in the ceremony he went off to make or take a telephone call.  Now anyone who has been in the position of Lord Mayor for six months will know to turn their mobile phone off, or have it on silent and just ignore it.  However, according to some reports, he was on the phone during the ceremony.  Now on the basis of the above it is very unlikely that he was taking a call.  It is much more likely that he was making a call.

Indeed in those circumstances I would suspect that he was phoning some of his Sinn Fein superiors in Connolly House, or wherever, to get instructions on what to do.  Sinn Fein operates very much like a Stalinist party where nearly every decision, and certainly every significant decision, has to be taken in the centre or approved in the centre.

If he were challenged about this he might well deny it but that would prove very little.  Sinn Fein members have notoriously bad memories - Gerry Adams seems to have forgotten what he did in the Troubles and Martin can't remember being in the IRA after 1974.  Moreover this problem does not afflict only the older republicans.  Even the younger members have this same problem.  So there is probably little point in posing the question to Niall about who he was talking to and about what.

Vote on strike action


RESULTS - There was a 30.2% return in the ballot for industrial action, with 59.3% voting FOR strike action. As the UTU Rules and Constitution state that before any strike action can be declared two-thirds of those voting must be in favour. The UTU will not, therefore, be asking its members to take strike action.

I copied the above from the the website of the Ulster Teachers Union. Only 30.2% of members participated in the vote on strike action and of these 59.3% votes for strike action.  This means that 17.9% of UTU members voted for strike action and 82,1% either abstained or voted against it.

The proposal for strike action failed because of those who voted, less than 2/3 supported strike action.  The vote for strike action, which was 59.3% of those who voted, fell below the 66.6% required.

However it is the turn out on which I want to comment.  On a 30.2% turnout a vote of just 20% for strike action would have provided the 2/3 vote required by the union rules.

There seems to have been quite a difference in the turnout across the unions but overall the figures have been very low.  There have also been difference in the level of support for a strike and it would be interesting to compare the figures.

Low turn outs seem to be very common in union ballots and on this case the proposal for strike action failed. 

The nasty side of Niall

Niall O'Donnghaile, a Sinn Fein councillor and Lord Mayor of Belfast, has certainly created a storm of controversy by his refusal to present a Duke of Edinburgh award to a young member of the Army Cadet Force at a ceremony in the City Hall.

He is a young mayor but certainly not inexperienced.  He worked for some time as a press officer for Sinn Fein in the Assembly and he is normally very media friendly and media savvy.

He has sought to present himself as a mayor for all the city but once again he has failed to live up to that claim and in so doing he has caused great offence.  Normally he tries to present a very personable image but last night the mask dropped and we saw the nasty side of Niall.

This was a snub to a young person whose dedication and achievements were being acknowledged.  Altogether 166 awards were being made and the Army Cadet Force is just one of a large number of youth organisations which make the Duke of Edinburgh programme available to all young people, Protestant and Roman Catholic.  To snub this young person in the way that he did was inexcusable.

A DUP councillor described the incident as 'a scandal', a UUP councillor said, 'He's bringing the office into disrepute', and the leader of the Alliance Party on the council said she was 'appalled'.  As yet the SDLP has not commented.  I welcome such cross-party disgust and I hope that this finds expression in the proper place, within the Council chamber.

I am sure that some who have rushed to invite Niall O'Donnghaile to events in unionist communities must now be reflecting on their decision and I am sure that others, who are contemplating extending invitations to him, will pause to think again.  This is not something that will blow over in a day or two.  It is another major blemish on his term in office.

I said that Niall O'Donnghaile is very media-friendly and that is reflected in the fact that the BBC has commissioned a documentary on his year in office.  An independent television company has been filming him during a number of mayoral engagements and indeed the company has requested to film the next Council meeting on Thursday evening.  In that context he could not have picked a worse time, from his point of view, to get it wrong.  He was obviously hoping for a council meeting that would show him in a good light but his snub to the young girl will undoubtedly be the subject of robust comment on Thursday evening and, if the television cameras are admitted, those comments will be made in front of the cameras and will become part of the documentary.

But in the midst of that controversy there is another matter which should not be overlooked.  Niall is certainly media-friendly but it seems that the BBC is also Sinn Fein-friendly.  The last time that the BBC commissioned a documentary on a Belfast Lord Mayor was in 2003 and that was Councillor Alex Maskey, another member of Sinn Fein.  Moreover, as far as I can recall, they are the only two mayors in recent years to be the subjects of a special BBC documentary.   There have been mayors from other political parties, DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance, but it seems that the only party to attract the interest of the BBC is Sinn Fein.  The BBC Charter requires the BBC to act in a balanced way but there is nothing balanced about this.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Pro fide et patria

On Tuesday (23 November) the Irish News excelled itself in terms of cultural bigotry and sectarianism.  Page 18 carried the daily editorial, along with an Ian Knox cartoon and the Brian Feeney column.

Above the editorial was the newspaper's long-standing Latin motto 'Pro fide et patria' or in English, 'Faith and Country' or 'Faith and Fatherland'.  The nation is of course Ireland and the faith is Roman Catholicism.

Some parents at Ballykeigle in county Down want to develop their small country school with a strong Ulster-Scots cultural ethos and that was reported elsewhere in the newspaper.  However Ian Knox could not help himself and immediately produced a cartoon mocking the initiative.  This was the latest in a series of cartoons, stretching back over several years, in which Ian Knox has mocked Ulster-Scots culture.  Indeed his cultural prejudice towards Ulster-Scots culture is weel kent but is it the sort of cartoon that contributes to the building of a shared and better future?  The answer to that question is 'no' and indeed I can't think of any other mainstream newspapers that would tolerate such prejudice.  However it's nothing new for the Irish News, which in this context seems to pander to some of the baser elements in our society.

There are already a number of schools which integrate Ulster-Scots language and culture into the curriculum and indeed that is simply a reflection of the cultural rights of children, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Ballykeigle parents simply want to take it on to another level.  Irish culture is embedded in Roman Catholic maintained schools and in Irish medium schools; so are the cultural rights enjoyed by Irish children to be denied to Ulster-Scots children?

Surely, if we are to create a shared and better future, it must be cased on principles such as equity, diversity and tolerance.  Sadly the Irish News has failed to grasp that vision.

The rest of the page is taken up with an article by Brian Feeney in which he engages in a sectarian headcount, condemns a recent statement by Peter Robinson as 'puerile', and generally regards unionists as pretty dense and incompetent.  Again it's standard bigotry from Brian Feeney, whose articles often have a rather nasty aspect to them.

I don't know the reason why Brian is such a bitter individual although it may have something to do with his past failure as a nationalist politician.  But whatever the reason, his contributions are rather unpleasant and sectarian.  They are often the sort of thing one might expect in the Andersonstown News but certainly not in a mainstream newspaper.

And so back to the shared future.  The Irish News does pay lip service to that shared future but by providing a platform for prejudice and pandering to prejudice it actually works against what it would claim to promote.

In sharp contrast the Belfast Telegraph commented on the Ballykeigle issue in a much more thoughful and reflective manner and made some interesting points.  As a society we need informed debate about cultural traditions, which are central to a shared future, and newspapers can do so much to provide a platform for that debate.  Sadly it seems the Irish News is not up to the challenge.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Homelessness Week

This is Homelessness Week and tonight I visited the drop-in centre run by the Welcome Organisation at St Peter's Square in West Belfast.

On my arrival I was able to present a cheque for £70,000 to Ricki Rowledge, director of the Council for the Homeless NI.  They distribute this through many other providers, such as the Salvation Army, so that every homeless person has shelter and a warm meal on Christmas Day.

After that Sandra Moore, director of homelessness services with the Welcome Organisation, gave me a tour of their drop-in centre.  The centre provides a place of refuge during the day, a place to spend time, to talk to others and be safe and warm. It also provides facilities for showering and to wash clothes.

Welcome delivers a range of services for homeless people and rough sleepers in Belfast - the drop-in centre, a street outreach service and the Divis emergency crash bed facility for women.   Their primary aim is to reduce the number of people sleeping rough and help rough sleepers move off the streets in Belfast.

After seeing the services provided in the centre, I went out with several members of staff in the minibus for the street outreach service.  We drove around central Belfast and visited a number of the locations where people sleep rough, including the porch of a city centre church, an area of rough ground where people sleep beneath the trees and shrubs, or a doorway beside a shop.  Some others squat and sleep at night in derelict buildings.  Tonight was fairly mild but what must it be like for them when the weather is really cold?  Many of us pass these sites regularly and yet are unaware that they are used overnight by rough sleepers.

I was saddened to see the extent of the problem and yet very much impressed by the dedication of the outreach workers.

The reasons why people sleep rough are varied but they include alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.  Some people have a single issue but many others have several problems.  For example, many people with an alcohol or drug addication also suffer from mental illness.  Yet there are others who do not drink or use drugs and whose plight is entirely the result of mental illness.

Our driver knew the men and women he deals with by name.  Some are rough sleepers and some are on the verge of becoming rough sleepers.  He could spot a group of them standing in the shadows at a street corner, or another rough sleeper who was staggering around near Castle Junction.  Most are male but some are female - the ratio is about 6 to 1 - and some of them are very young.  One was a young woman who is just 23 and an alcoholic.

As a society, we should be a compassionate society and how we care for the most damaged and the most vulnerable people is a measure of that compassion. I was saddened to see so many people whose lives have been wrecked by addiction or trauma but deeply impressed by the work of the Welcome Organisation in reaching out to help them.

Some can be picked up and are willing to go into crisis accommodation overnight. Others refuse but can be helped out with a warm drink or some food. 

Welcome is one of a number of organisations that work in this field.  Recently I also visited the Depaul hostel for alcoholics, which is. in the docks area, and also the Depaul day centre in Londonderry.

The Department for Social Development has a Supporting People programme and there are clearly many folk in our society who need that support.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Sinn Fein and the Cenotaph

Belfast Lord Mayor and Sinn Fein councillor Niall O'Donnghaile has explained why he refused to participate in the Council's Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph.  He said that the service was 'heavily militarised'.  What a pathetic excuse!  The ceremony remembers SOLDIERS who served in the ARMY and fought in a WAR.  That's why there is military involvement in the ceremony and that's why it is 'militarist'

Moreover members of Sinn Fein have had no difficulty participating in commemorative events organised on behalf of an illegal terrorist army, the Irish Republican Army.

Nevertheless I can understand why Sinn Fein do not want to take part in remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph.  It may have something to do with the role of the IRA during the Second World War. 

Eire remained neutral in the war but many Ulstermen and Irishmen, Protestant and Roman Catholic, fought in the cause of freedom and democracy.  However while they were fighting the Nazis, on the battlefields of Europe and elsewhere, the IRA stayed at home and fought their own squalid little war. 

The IRA mounted a terrorist campaign in Great Britain, which included the notorious Coventry bombing.  Meanwhile, in Ulster and in Eire, they murdered a number of policemen, including several who were Roman Catholics.  Oh yes, and of course they collaborated with the Nazis, protecting Nazi spies and providing information to the Luftwaffe on potential targets in Belfast for the German bombers.  In their publication War News (21 November 1940), the IRA even praised Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
Oh here's to Adolph Hitler,
Who made the Briton's squeal.
Sure before the fight is ended,
They will dance an Irish reel.
There is a statue in Dublin  of the IRA chief of staff at that time, Sean Russell, and I believe it is the only statue in Europe in memory of someone who collaborated with the Nazis.  Russell even died on board a Nazi submarine.  That statue was erected by the National Graves Association, a core element in the republican movement, and IRA leaders attended the dedication of the statue. 

Sinn Fein seem to have no problem holding commemorative events for an IRA leader who collaborated with the Nazis.  As regards the Second World War, that seems to be their kind of remembrance.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Double glazing and houses

Today the Assembly debated the Programme for Government and I was able to announce several key commitments for the Department of Social Development.

Double glazing

Many Housing Executive houses do not have double glazing.  The total NIHE stock is around 90,000 houses and of these about 40% have double glazing but about 60% still have only single glazing.  Under my SDLP predecessors, Margaret Ritchie and Alex Attwood, little was done to address this problem and the Housing Executive told me that it would take until 2021, another ten years, before all their houses had double glazing.  This was unacceptable and I decided to make this matter a priority for the Housing Executive.

Our commitment is to have all Housing Executive properties double glazed within the term of this Assembly and so it will be done in four years instead of ten.  I would like to have done it sooner but the task is a major one, after so many years of neglect, and around 50,000 houses will have to be upgraded.  I have already asked the Housing Executive to come forward with a strategy to deliver this and I have also secured some additional funding this year to get the programme underway.

I was interviewed tonight on Radio Ulster and the item included an interview with a couple of senior citizens from Rathcoole, Jimmy and May McFarland, who were delighted by the announcement.  Jimmy explained that so much of the heat in their home was being lost through the windows and as a result they were faced with higher fuel costs.

At a time of rising energy prices and higher levels of fuel poverty, it was right to make this a priority.  It was the right decision and it was long overdue.  Improving the energy efficiency of houses is one of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty.

8,000 social and affordable houses

Another important commitment is to build 8,000 social and afordable homes over the next four years and we have set aside around £561.6 million. for this.

Both initiatives are good in themselves but they will also bring major benefit to the construction industry as well as the supply and delivery sectors.

These two announcements are good news stories and I know they will be warmly welcomed.  Devolution has to be about delivery and this is real delivery.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Londonderry - 'the glory of the Scotch-Irish'

Dr George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980) was an American academic and the author of Names on the Land: A historical account of place-naming in the United States.  This book was published in 1945 and then reprinted in 1958, 1967, 1972, 1986 and 2008.

In it he considered the influence of many groups on the place-names, including the Scotch-Irish:

Also among the non-English immigrants may be counted the Scotch-Irish, who brought with their scanty baggage (as has been said) three things of different worth to the new country - whiskey, the Presbyterian Church, and independence from Great Britain.  They were lean fighting-men whose ancestors in Ireland for three generations had known what it was to face 'the wolf and the wood-kern.'  A shrewd Pennsylvania governor settled them beyond the Germans, 'as a frontier, in case of any disturbance.'  Also they settled in New England far to the north, along the Merrimack.  Since they spoke English, though with a little northern burr, they established no new habit of naming, and took over the ways the English had already begun.  Moreover, they were not a very sentimental people, and of one name alone they seem to have been proud.  That was of the city they had held through one of the famous sieges of history, until at last King William's ship broke the boom, and came sailing up Lough Foyle.  The young man who saw those ships from the cathedral tower and fired a gun to signal the relief came years later as Pastor McGregor to settle in New Hampshire, and the town there too was named Londonderry.  That same name or its shortened form Derry was scattered across Pennsylvania and even farther west - in that name was the glory of the Scotch-Irish.
The Scotch-Irish in America and the Ulster-Scots in Ulster were indeed proud of that great siege and of the courage and fortitude of the defenders.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Twelfth protesters

Judgment has been reserved in a case involving 28 people accussed of staging an illegal sit-down protest on the Crumlin Road, near Ardoyne, as Orange lodges were due to return home on 12 July 2011.

All of the defendants are charged with obstructing lawful activity in a public place and some are also accused ot resisting arrest.  Deputy district judge Neil Rafferty reserved judgment and told lawyers he would notify them when he had reaqched his verdict.  His decision will certainly attract considerable attention.

The right of peaceful assembly is one of the most basic human rights in a liberal and democratic society and it is one that is highly valued around the world.  Those who sought to block the main road were attempting to deny others that basic human right.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


I have just come across an old cutting from the Irish Times.  In his column Words We Use, Diarmaid O Muirithe explains the word shend, which is still used by some Ulster-Scots speakers in the Ards peninsula.

According to the Scots dictionaries it means 'to chide, reprove; to confound; to disgrace.'  The word also has the meansing of 'mar, destroy, ruin' and from it we get the noun shendship, meaning 'ruin, confusion'.

A correspondent to Diarmaid recalled her mother saying, 'Don't dare go to church in that gaudy dress, you'll have us all shent.'

The word is from the Old English scendan, 'to put to shame, to injure.'

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Social Security Agency's Innovation Fund

This is the speech I delivered today at the launch of the Innovation Fund in Belfast City Hall:

Tackling poverty has never been a more crucial issue for Government in Northern Ireland than in the present economic climate.  People at all levels of society across Northern Ireland are feeling the impacts of the current recession and it is more important than ever that the Social Security Agency is at the forefront of addressing and mitigating the impacts of poverty by ensuring that those who need it most are receiving the financial assistance to which they are entitled.

The Executive recognises the challenges for those people who are most disadvantaged within our society and are taking the necessary steps to address this need to ensure that those people have the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from increased prosperity.

The Social Security Agency has, since 2005, had a specific target to encourage benefit uptake and has taken forward a wide range of programmes in support of this target.  This work has generated an additional £37.6m to date in benefit awards with £3.95m of this in the last 12 months alone.  The Agency is continuing to build upon its commitment to helping reduce the impacts of poverty by encouraging people to check they are receiving their full benefit entitlement.

This year the Agency has significantly increased its investment in benefit uptake work, including, introducing two new initiatives, one of which is the Innovation Fund; and the second a province wide advertising campaign which will be announced shortly.  The Agency has a proven track record of working successfully with Third Sector partners, including organisations who focus on specific customer groups as well as voluntary and community sector organisations who work at grass roots level.  All of this is focused on connecting to those in our communities who may be hardest to reach and who may be entitled to financial support.

This year the Social Security Agency is launching, on a pilot basis, an Innovation Fund of £250,000 to encourage partners in the voluntary and community sector to take a lead in testing new and fresh approaches to reaching people with potential benefit entitlement.  The response to a competitive tendering competition was very encouraging with 27 proposals being submitted by 19 local organisations.

I am also particularly pleased that Atlantic Philanthropies has decided to make an additional investment of £125,000 to support the objectives of the Innovation Fund.  Atlantic Philanthropies is a Foundation which shares many of the objectives of my Department in building sustainable communities, addressing disadvantage and mitigating poverty.  I would like to publicly thank Atlantic Philanthropies for their commitment and investment.  I would also like to thank Ken Logue personally for his work on developing the Innovation Fund to date and for his promised commitment to working in partnership with us in monitoring and evaluating the outcomes.  This further investment by Atlantic Philanthropies means that we now have £375,000 to allocate, rather than the £250,000 originally envisaged.  As a consequence we can now fund 7 separate projects to run for the next 12 months.

The successful projects seek to target a wide range of people who may not be claiming their full entitlement, such as those in part time work on lower levels of income, those with health issues, including cancer, young people with special needs, older people, those living with disability and carers.  This is encouraging and I also like the fact that proposed new and innovatve technologies are being tested.

I congratulate the successful organisations and look forward to the outcomes of your efforts.  I would also like to commend staff for their past and continued efforts in serving the people of Northern Ireland so well.

The IRA in the 2nd World War

The Irish News runs a daily column entitled 'On This Day' in which historian Eamon Phoenix looks at events that happened 'on this day' some years ago and today he looked back to 1 November 1942.

Britain and her allies were at war with Germany but back in Ulster  the IRA saw this as their opportunity and during the course of the war they staged many terrorist attacks.  Today the newspaper reported that 69 years ago 'ten people - eight civilians and two policemen - were injured by a violent bomb explosion in Herbert Street, off the Crumlin Road' in North Belfast.

Five of the injured were children ranging from seven to fifteen years and six people were detailed in hospital.  A police patrol in Herbert Street had challenged two men, both of whom ran away, dropping a Mills grenade and a loaded revolver.  The grenade exploded injuring eight civilians, one of whom was a seven-year-old boy named Patrick Scullion, from Butler Street.  Most, if not all, of the civilians were Roman Catholics from Ardoyne.  The two policemen were also injured and all the injuries were caused by bomb splinters.

As we approach Remembrance Sunday and remember those who served and those who died in two World Wars and other conflicts, it is helpful to recall incidents such as that in Herbert Street.  Such incidents help to explain why the Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast will once again refuse to take part in the offical remembrance ceremonies.

At a time when many Ulstermen and Irishmen, Protestant and Roman Catholic, were fighting on the battlefields of Europe and beyond, fighting to thwart Hitler's evil plans, the IRA was mounting a squalid little terrorist campaign.  I have posted about the links between the IRA and the Nazis on previous occasions but today's newspaper was a timely reminder of those links. 

Thursday, 27 October 2011

BBC pundit and former GAA star 'praises' IRA leader

Last week the front page story in the Sunday Life carried the headline 'BBC STAR IRA ROW - GAA pundit says sorry for praising Provo chief'.  The story then continued over two pages in the newspaper.

Jarlath Burns is a school teacher, a former Armagh GAA captain, and now a BBC sports pundit.  Recently he appeared at a Sinn Fein rally in Dublin at which a number of celebrities endorsed Martin McGuinness in his campaign for president of the Irish Republic.  It seems that theer were many celebrities at the event but it was Burns who got the publicity.  His participation, his support for McGuinness and his comments about an IRA commander have certainly attracted attention.

During his speech at the rally, Jarlath Burns praised Peter John Caraher, a former neighbour, who died on 10 October.  He boasted that, 'When the British thought that they ruled South Armagh ... South Armagh was being ruled from Peter John Caraher's house.'

Caraher was the IRA commander in South Armagh and is believed to have been one of the IRA gunmen involved in the Kingsmills massacre.

When he was challenged by the newspaper about his comments, Burns described himself as a 'peace-loving person' and said, 'I'd be offended if someone took a comment at a rally about a neighbour of mine as any way whatsoever supporting violence or suporting people being killed.  That was unscripted.  I probably should have scripted it a wee bit better and shown a bit more sensitivity, but the point I was making was Peter John Caraher was someone who went the same journey as Martin McGuinness.'

He was also asked about the allegation, made under parliamentary privilege in 2007, that Caraher had sanctioned the murder of Paul Quinn by IRA men in South Armagh.  In response to this Jarlath Burns replied, 'I don't know about that, the death of Paul Quinn.'

'I fully and 100 percent understand (that people may be upset at the remarks) and I would never seek to offend anybody with what I say or what I do.'

However, many people will be surprised at the appearance of a BBC sports commentator at an election rally for a Sinn Fein leader. 

Even more will be surprised that a BBC sports commentator freely commends a former IRA commander, who 'ruled' what is known as 'Bandit country'.  Burns says that the comments were unscripted but is that not the sort of situation in which an individual speaks from the heart?

Since then Lord Morrow has called for strong action by the BBC against their commentator and we
must wait to see the response of the BBC.

The Sunday Life report also recalled that Burns 'has come under fire before for making political comments'.  Last year he wrongly accused me of 'bigoted political chicanery' in relation to planning permission for the expansion of a GAA club.  As the paper noted, 'McCausland's then Culture and Sport ministry had not been responsible for dealing with the planning application.'  That is absolutely right and I dealt with that matter in this blog on 10 March 2010.  I had no connection at all with the decision but his false accusation provided another insight into the man's mindset.

The Dublin rally is not, of course, the first appearance by Jarlath Burns on a Sinn Fein platform.  Last year he was one of the speakers at a Sinn Fein conference in London and that was the occasion on which he made the false accusation.

It seems that whenever he makes his, now annual, appearance at a Sinn Fein event, he manages to make a newsworthy statement!  Yes I think the BBC has some thinking to do.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

More money for housing

Yesterday in the October Monitoring round, the DFP minister Sammy Wilson allocated an additional £10m for the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Housing Association and £2m for energy efficiency improvements to social housing.

Originally there was £15m in the budget this year for co-ownership housing but last month it became clear that some additional money might be available and I met with the Co-ownership Housing Association to see if they could allocate any additional money.  Recently the demand has been greater than they could meet and they have ben operating a lottery system to see who they could help.  They assured me that the demand was there and that they could handle the additional work.  As a result I bid for £10m in the monitoring round and it has been allocated.

However it was also important to ensure that the banks were on board for this additional demand, that they would be able to meet the demand and that they would be able to handle the mortage element quickly enough to anable purchasers to complete their house purchases in time.  Sammy Wilson and I met with the banks on two occasions and they assured us that they could process the mortgage element in time.

This is good news and will enable 170 more people to acquire a home under co-ownership.  These are people who could not otherwise afford to get on to the property ladder but through this scheme they will have an affordable home.

This year along, through co-ownership and the first-buy scheme, we will be able to help 700 families acquire and affordable home.

Another important issue is fuel poverty and the best way to address this is through improving the energy efficiency of homes.  However 60% of Housing Executive homes syill have single glazed windows.  The allocation of £2m will enable them to install double glazing and better insulation in many homes.  I had bid for £4m but if the Housing Executive are able to have the £2m spent in time there should be another £2m available in the next monitoring round.

All of this is good new for the construction industry as it will create additional work for the building trade.  They will also benefit from additional allocations to the Department of Education for school maintenance and to the DRD for roads.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Three terrorist brothers

On 6 December 1975 two IRA terrorists from the South Armagh Brigade were killed when a land mine they were working on exploded prematurely at Kelly's Road, Killeen.  The terrorists were Sean Campbell (20) and James Lochrie (19).

However Sean was not the only terrorist in the family.  Two of his brothers, Liam and Michael, refused to accept the IRA ceasefire and left to join the Real IRA.

Liam has been identified as one of the terrorists behind the Real IRA bomb in Omagh in 1998, which killed 29 innocent people.  The Omagh families took a civil case against against four men, one of them Liam Campbell, and a court heard that the case against Campbell was 'overwhelming'.

Meanwhile Michael Campbell has just been convicted in Lithuania of trying to purchase weapons and explosives for the Real IRA and he has been sentenced to twelve years in prison.  During the case it was revealed that he planned to use the weapons and exposives in terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Liam and Michael are certainly in the news but their brother Sean Campbell is not forgotten.  Dromintee GAA Club has named its ground Lochrie-Campbell Park, in memory of the two IRA terrorists.  There is also a Lochrie-Campbell Memorial Cup and GAA minor teams compete for the trophy.

The conviction of Michael Campbell is to be welcomed and it may well pave the way for the extradition and conviction of Liam Campbell.  Meanwhile the fact that the Dromintee GAA ground is still named after their terrorist brother and his associate is a reminder that while some things have changed in the GAA, there is still more to be done.  The GAA speaks of 'reaching out to unionists' but any gestures in that direction are contradicted by sitiuations such as that in Dromintee.

Friday, 21 October 2011

A hopeless place?

The pop singer Rihanna caused some controversy during her recent visit to Northern Ireland, as regards both the filming of a video and her performance at the Odyssey, when fans were kept waiting for her to appear. 

Part of the video was filmed in the New Lodge Road area in North Belfast and crowds of local people flocked round her during her time in the area.  They were excited and delighted about her visit to the New Lodge but I wonder what their reaction is now that the video is out?  Apparently much of it involves her singing 'I found love in a hopeless place'.  This is set against a background of drugs, alcohol and gambling, interspersed with shots of the New Lodge flats and views of the general area. 

A hopeless place?  Fortunately most people who see the video will have no idea where it was filmed.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Only one out of three students are Protestants

Only one in three of the 35,000 university students in Northern Ireland are from a Protestant background.  That has been revealed by the Department of Employment and Learning in response to an Assembly question.  But what is the explanation? 

Today some folk have attempted to explain the differential in student intake at Northern Ireland universities on the basis of educational underachivement in some working-class Protestant areas.  There is certainly an issue of educational underachievement and that issue must be addressed.  In doing so we need to start at an early stage, working with parents and children.

However this does not explain the major disparity in the number of Protestant and Roman Catholic students in Northern Ireland universities. There is also a problem of educational underachievement in some working-class nationalist areas and as DSD minister I have visited nationalist communities that recognise this problem and are seeking to address it.

As regards educational underachievement in unionist areas there are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this and I will return to this on another occasion. However the extent of the disparity in university intake is such that there must be other factors involved.

This is not a new issue but I think that on this occasion it has got such attention in the media that it will have to be explored further. Too often in the past universities were able to ignore the issue and hope it would disappear out of the spotlight.

We need further research to see how many young people, from unionist and nationalist backgrounds, are goiing on to university and the pattern of choice they are making. We must also see why our local universitiies are attracting fewer Protestants than Roman Catholics. Why are so many young Protestants choosing to go elsewhere, how many are choosing to go, and where are they going?

However, returning to my previous post, the situation at Magee is particularly acute and certainly cannot be explained by any differential in educational underachievement. 

There is obviously a chill factor for Protestants at local universities, something that is particularly acute at Magee, and it is incumbent on the universities to address that issue. It is also incumbent on the Assembly to carry out its own exploration of the matter.