The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) held vigils in Belfast and Derry on Tuesday September 28th to mark the 20th anniversary of the murder of journalist Martin O’Hagan. The vigils also demanded justice for Martin.
Twenty years on, nobody has been convicted. Nobody has even faced trial. This is despite the names of the killers being well-known. Even the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (as conservative as its name suggests) has raised concerns. “It is unacceptable that all this time has passed and not one person has been held responsible for what was a public execution,” a representative said. “The failure to prosecute can create an environment of impunity for those who might attack journalists.”
Martin was a courageous journalist. He had particularly worked on stories about collusion. He was shot to stop him shining light into dark places.
Several members of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) gang who killed him are known to be security force agents. At the time he was murdered, Martin was investigating links between the LVF and persons in the security forces. That was why he was killed.
Martin was also the most senior trade unionist killed in the Troubles. At the time of his death he was Secretary of the Belfast and District Branch of the NUJ. He was also a socialist, who hated injustice and sectarianism.
Martin was the first journalist murdered in Northern Ireland. It was fitting that the Derry vigil was addressed by Sara Canning, partner of Lyra McKee. Lyra was the second journalist murdered, two years ago.
Both were killed during the ‘Peace Process’, mis-sold throughout the world as a perfect political solution. In recent years, Northern Ireland has become more dangerous for journalists. Threats have become more frequent, and more sinister.
Education Welfare Officers (EWOs) work to make sure children from disadvantaged households or vulnerable backgrounds don’t lose out on getting an education through absenteeism. They also have a particular role in supporting young people coming from newly-arrived families, including Syrian refugees.
Their role is not an easy one but it is vital to protect and support some of our most vulnerable young people.
EWOs are qualified as social workers but perform an educational welfare role. In so doing, they are paid £5k less than they would be if they worked as social workers for the Health Department. The huge differential in pay has resulted in a staffing crisis as EWOs and newly qualified leave to take up positions as social workers in the NHS.
The result is that fewer and fewer EWOs are left to bear the burden of empty desks. That is a huge pressure on the workers themselves but also means that the needs of the most vulnerable children are being sacrificed. In the former Western Education area, union sources estimate that there is a shortfall of eight in staffing levels – with each EWO having a caseload of approximately 30 children – that means that up to 250 children are not getting the support they need.
The situation in the Belfast area is even worse with large waiting lists.
As usual, Stormont has done nothing on this developing crisis for years. The workers, almost all members of NIPSA recently voted overwhelmingly in a ballot for both industrial action short of strike action and strike action.
Work to rule
Thursday May 4th workers commenced a work-to-rule. Given the huge caseloads on workers, it is certain that the impact of this industrial action will be severe. It is imperative that the DUP Education Minister is forced to move and address fully the demands of these workers.
On the same day I stood with striking Educational Welfare officers on their picket line in Omagh, I took their fight into the council chamber. That night I expressed my full solidarity with the striking workers and put forward an emergency proposal that the council write to the Education Minister to demand he provide full pay parity to the striking workers. It was adopted unanimously with independent (anti-Gold mining) Councillor Emmet McAleer in particular indicating his solidarity with the workers’ fight.
All sections of the trade union movement and Left politicians need to support the EWOs in this struggle. Their fight is not just for pay equality but to secure the staffing needed to make sure young people from severely disadvantaged backgrounds access life-changing educational opportunities .
Unfortunately the approach to the second anniversay of the killing of journalist Lyra McKee was marked by a potentially deadly attack on another journalist. Two masked men jumped photographer Kevin Scott from behind when he was working covering rioting at Lanark Way in Belfast. He was knocked to the ground, kicked, and his cameras were damaged. The attackers also called him a F***** c***.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) at local and national level immediately came out in support of Kevin.
By the nature of journalists’ work, we must go to riots. Photographers like Kevin are particularly visible because they carry camera equipment. Attacks on journalists are more than attacks on inviduals: they are attacks on the public’s right to know.
At time of writing, the attack on Kevin was the most recent physical attack on a journalist in Northern Ireland. In recent months police have warned several journalists they were under threat. Women journalists have been particularly targeted. Some Co Antrim UDA members have threatened Patricia Devlin. A faction of the East Belfast UVF has painted threats against her on walls. More recently, she has also been viciously trolled on social media. A threat against Allison Morris has been painted on a wall in a Catholic area of North Belfast.
In December, Northern Ireland NUJ members held very effective socially-distanced protests in Belfast and Derry against threats to journalists. These were very important. They showed those under threat that they were not alone.
Over the past couple of years, the union locally and centrally has also successfuly campaigned for journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey. The two made a film about the Loughinisland Massacre of 1994, when the UVF killed six Catholic civilians watching a football match in a pub. The journalists were the only arrests in connection with the killing. Police were more interested in finding out who leaked material documenting collusing than in arresting the alleged killers.
All these threats against journalists endanger the public’s right to know, because they can mean certain issues cannot be covered.
Until now, two journalists have been killed in Northern Ireland. The Loyalist Volunteer force killed Martin O’Hagan in September 2001. The New IRA shot Lyra two years ago.
Our motto is simple. No more Martin O’Hagans. No More Lyra McKees.
Maguiresbridge man Richie Venton has received a pay out from the IKEA multinational shopping chain that stands accused of victimising him for his trade union activity.
Unfortunately Richie was not reinstated. But his solidarity campaign did carry the union message to every IKEA across the country. That message was clear – we can’t let these anti –union companies drive unions out. We need to stand and fight.
The shock of the devastating Covid 19 crisis, and a new phase of economic turbulence has unleashed a wave of dislocation, uncertainty, and desperation across the globe. The impact is compounded by the grind of the previous 10 years of austerity that had brought many individuals and communities to the edge of impoverishment. In such circumstances where people see that we can no longer go on as before, significant struggles in society are inevitable.
Across every continent we already see the early stages of a fight back against austerity, job losses and attacks on workers’ rights, oppression, repression, racism, and environmental destruction. But alongside these positive developments a crisis of this scale and depth also inevitably means that the desperation of sections of society are reflected as well. The political detritus and poison of populism that already exists in various guises such as religious fundamentalism, national interest, racism, xenophobia, war mongering and of course locally sectarianism are now likely to re-emerge strengthened and renewed. These reactionary ideas are no longer just the bailiwick of wings of the mainstream right-wing political parties, isolated cranks, and fascist groups on the fringes of society they are also increasingly reflected in so called mainstream media and public discussion.
For trade unions this poses serious challenges. Naturally, they are not immune from either positive or negative developments. On the one hand the trade unions can grow and become increasingly militant and determined to fight for a better society. On the other hand they are also susceptible to pressure from the ideology of populism. Populism in the unions is likely to initially appear in the form of a Trojan Horse wrapped in the national flag demanding defend ‘our’ jobs and our industry against the interests of workers in other places. If left unchallenged defending ‘our’ jobs can become the worker in another country city or parish is my enemy and my boss is my friend. These ideas, if unchecked, will inevitably create division, setting worker against worker and weakening the fighting capacity of the union movement to the point where even defence of the most basic achievements of the working class on pay and terms and conditions is made more difficult.
The signs of populism are already evident in the unions today, we must take this issue on now. Workers unity must become the watch word for every trade union militant. This does not mean that the trade unions do not deal with hard and potentially divisive issues, but it does mean dealing with them on our own terms. We have nothing in common with the bosses or the ruling class, their political mouth pieces or the myriad groups advocating national interest, racist, or sectarian solutions to the problems facing workers. Our solutions are based on the interests of the working class and as such can never align with theirs.
We take our stand on the ground of the struggle for workers unity. Our aim is to build powerful trade unions and new political parties of the working class that can play their role in advancing the struggle to change society for the better.
Cross-Community Labour Councillor for Enniskillen Donal O’Cofaigh has written to the Chief Officer of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to obtain a date when a full-time fire station will return to the county.
“I have written to NI Fire and Rescue Chief Officer Michael Graham to ask him when the full time complement will return to Enniskillen Fire Station.
“At the commencement of the COVID-19 lockdown, the full-time team based in Enniskillen was moved to Omagh. From firefighters themselves I understood this to be a short-term measure related to contingency planning around the pandemic. We recognised that there was relatively less risk on being dependent on part-time firefighters when most on-call firefighters were already at home but nonetheless it has been an issue that I’ve been closely monitoring.
Northern Ireland’s government was suspended between 2017 and 2020 after the sectarian parties refused to reach a power-sharing agreement following the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Now a strike wave has forced them and the bosses to give ground.
The Socialist spoke to public sector union Nipsa’s deputy general secretary Carmel Gates (in a personal capacity) about the struggles.
Were the private sector strikes in 2019 a watershed for workers’ struggle?
Yes. There’s been a significant change in Northern Ireland. We’ve gone from a period of having the least number of days lost in strikes to potentially now moving into a peak that we haven’t seen in decades.
And I think it was the Harland and Wolff shipyard occupation victory that kick-started that. The shipyard was facing closure. It’s a historic landmark. Not just on the landscape, with the two very prominent cranes, Samson and Goliath – it has also been one of the most important employers.
The proud industrial heritage within Belfast and Northern Ireland – much of this has gone. Symbolically the action taken by shipyard workers has had an impact. People saw those workers standing up and saving industry, saving something that is monumental.
And it has to some degree changed the landscape – the confidence that workers now feel. Quickly after Harland and Wolff, Wrightbus – a factory that makes buses – was facing closure. And again, the workers took to the outside of the factory and made their presence felt.
Caroline Wheeler, a prominent anti-cuts activist and trade unionist, was the only candidate standing on a genuine cross-community, labour and trade union platform in the recent Westminster election in Northern Ireland, in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.
Caroline received the full support of local activists and her candidacy was proposed by our councillor in the area, Donal O’Cofaigh. Caroline’s campaign secured a creditable 754 votes in what was a very sharply polarised and closely contested ‘headcount’ poll between the two communities, Protestant and Catholic.
Parliamentary elections in the constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone have been highly contested since the constituency was established in 1950. Because of the first-past-the-post system used, Westminster elections are traditionally a sectarian headcount, with the relatively well-balanced and stable demographic balance meaning every election is closely fought.
In 1981, the constituency famously elected IRA prison hunger striker, Bobby Sands, who died only weeks after winning the seat. The victory demonstrated the Republican movement’s potential to score political success and was highly influential in the subsequent thinking and trajectory of Sinn Fein’s leadership. The seat reverted back to the unionists when Sands’ successor went on the run after he was caught transporting guns. Due to the split nationalist vote, that remained the situation for almost twenty years before the seat fell to current Sinn Féin incumbent, Michelle Gildernew, in 2001, signalling the party’s road to dominance as the largest nationalist party in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Tom Elliott, the United Unionist candidate, retook the seat in 2015 but lost it again to Gildernew, in 2017, with the collapse of the bourgeois-nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) vote.