Since being elected, Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh has sought to use the council as a platform to shine a light on issues which those in power – either in Stormont or Westminster – would want to keep in the darkness. One such issue was the way in which Covid-suspect patients were sent to care homes at the beginning of the pandemic – often before the results of Covid tests were returned to them or known.
Whether coincidentally or not, the regime of inspections of private care homes by the regulator RQIA were discontinued at the same time – meaning no oversight of what happened. Cllr O’Cofaigh regularly used the council to make public reports of what was happening direct from health and care workers as well as relatives. As a result regional papers ended up covering the concerns – concerns that were later confirmed by none other than the political advisor to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings.
To keep up the pressure for truth, Cllr O’Cofaigh raised a motion in the council demanding a full independent public inquiry into what had happened. With its adoption, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council became the first council to make such a demand. In response to this and other public pressure, the Department conducted a limited, in-house investigation of its own and Cllr O’Cofaigh raised a second motion challenging the effectiveness of the investigation and reiterating the call for an independent public inquiry. The demand and fight for truth will continue – given the prolonged nature of the Covid pandemic it is vital that the Dept of Health come clean on what happened and how.
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.
Donal O’Cofaigh has highlighted repeatedly the continued failure by Stormont to address the ongoing GP crisis in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In recent months he publicly revealed statistics confirming the scale and extent of the crisis in GP out-of-hours cover.
Funding for primary care (GPs) in NI is among the lowest in the UK. Moves to increase the numbers of GPs being trained up are far too low to address the shortfall. Even more disgracefully Stormont is refusing to consider the obvious option of the NHS directly employing GPs and directing them to work in areas of greatest need – just as other emergency workers are recruited.
The failure to deal with the GP crisis and the out-of-hours GP crisis – means that pressures on our Emergency Department are overwhelming. Staff are underpaid, understaffed and at breaking point. Those who need medical attention face interminable waits, meaning serious conditions being undiagnosed. A perfect storm is brewing and there is a genuine fear that there are those at the top of the Health Department who will not let a ‘good crisis go to waste’. We face the threat of further creeping privatisation and cutbacks. We must stand ready to organise to defend our NHS services!
Enniskillen plays a vital role in the economy of our county but over years it has been neglected by politicians of all stripes. The shutdown during the Covid pandemic brought things to a head and left in its wake empty buildings across the town. We face the prospect of a multi-million pound public thoroughfare upgrade being delivered at the very time when the future of our town as a commercial centre hangs in the balance.
Supports for workers who lost their jobs from both Westminster and Stormont government were inadequate leaving many prey to unscrupulous bosses who have sought to capitalise on the opportunities posed. Zero hours workers in our town were made redundant overnight – those with less than a year on the job found themselves jobless with no redundancy payments. Many have turned to the trade unions as the best guarantee of protecting themselves from fire and rehire, to win basic health and safety protections and even special Covid payments. This is to be welcomed but the reality is that Stormont continues to preside over an unfair playing field in which workers find the laws stacked against them.
In order to reverse the trend, Stormont must deliver public investment for Enniskillen from Stormont for quality job creation. Cross-community Labour councillor Donal O’Cofaigh has demanded the council take the lead in securing a planned approach to town regeneration, reversing the combined effects of market failure and the pandemic. Efforts by him alongside independent councillors to pass a ‘no cuts, zero rates increase’ budget failed last year but earlier proposals to reduce opening hours at leisure facilities were averted.
The government of Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game of high wire diplomacy with the EU. The threat the British Prime Minister seeks to employ is the threat of a return to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland with the aim of forcing the EU to retreat from requiring hard sea border checks. Such checks being necessary to avoid the need for a hard land border between north and south as a result of the hard Brexit the Tory party under Johnson pursued.
In doing so he is attempting to repeat what his political opponents in Dublin and Brussels did to great effect when they raised the threat of Republican violence attendant on the imposition of a hard land border in Brexit negotiations over previous years. As part of the EU’s effort to use Northern Ireland to better tie in the UK into their trading area, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney developed a sudden and profound concern for northern Catholics and an unheard of awareness – for Fine Gael politicians – of the impact of partition on the north.
Playing the Orange card
Of course, for his part, Johnson is not the first Conservative leader to seek to ‘play the Orange card’. Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston, of whom Johnson is a biographer, used the tactic in opposing Gladstone’s second Home Rule bill in the 1890s, coining the phrase that continues to echo today that ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’. The risk then as now, with deploying the ‘orange card’ is that it involves playing upon deep-seated divisions which remain unresolved, and indeed unresolvable under capitalism.
Johnson’s forays, talking up the threat of civil unrest, only make such unrest a more likely prospect. The fact that he set the ‘Twelfth of July’, the central date in the Loyalist marching calendar, as the target date for resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol appears another move to only further exacerbate tensions.
Riots on the streets
In early April, the mounting tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol which came into force but has not been fully implemented to date became visible on the streets as Loyalist rioters torched buses and threatened port workers. The potential for the riots to roll out of control was exhibited as rioters gathered from both sides of the Belfast peace walls to attack each other. While the leaders of Unionism and Loyalism used the death of British Royal Prince Philip to cut across that upsurge and reassert their control, the potential is there for it to return – a fact exhibited by periodic and illegal mobilisations of loyalists in unionist strongholds such as Portadown.
Removal of Arlene Foster and the hand of Loyalism
Apparent DUP complicity with the erection of a hard sea border was the main driver for the removal of party leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, who despite her record as a hard-line unionist leader, was deemed to be out of step with the grassroots. Her ousting as leader was only part of a wider cull of the broader leadership of the DUP, replaced with a new and even more hard-line generation built around the leadership of the highly conservative Edwin Poots.
It was also significant that Edwin Poots’ opponent in the close DUP leadership run-off which followed the vote of no confidence in Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson, alleged at the party meeting to confirm her successor that his team had been threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries of the UDA in the course of the election process.
It goes without saying that this exemplifies the extent to which Northern Ireland is neither a stable or normal bourgeois democratic society.
Anti-goldmining protestors have picketed Omagh police station in protest at the detention of fellow-campaigner Martin Tracey. This is the latest turn in the long-running campaign.
Tracey detention stems from an incident when he and another campaigner had challenged three people in two cars acting suspiciously in the Greencastle area of Tyrone.
The three confirmed they were working for mining company Dalradian. Dalradian’s prospecting licence for that area had expired two years ago. One of the three started shouting she was being harrassed. Then one car reversed, shot forward at speed and struck Tracey on the foot.
He reported the incident to police, who did not come for an hour. Some time later police went to his house seeking him. He went voluntarily to Omagh police station, where he was detained for five hours. He was released on his own bail, which restricts his movements, and may face charges. Police have so far not taken a statement from the other campaigner.
This is the latest incident where police have ignored complaints of threats, intimidation and assult by people associated with Dalradian. In contrast, complaints against campaigners are followed up.
Mistrust of the police role is fuelled by a statement from Dalradian Chief Executive Patrick Anderson. Speaking at a Precious Metals Summit in Colorado, he said: “The police who deliver the explosives bought shares.” (Irish News July 7th 2016).
If police officers involved in policing the mine area have shares in Dalradian, that is a major conflict of interest. The PSNI has been asked what is their attitude. In a reply, a police spokesperson said: “Police officers and staff are not required to declare the purchase or sale of any shares listed for public sale on the stock market.”
Dalradian so respects the law it is reported not to have paid a bill of some £400,000 to police for escorting the explosives. Meanwhile the establishment parties, both green and orange, remain totally silent about corporate policing of environmental protectors.
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.