Stormont must deliver domestic violence refuges and emergency accommodation

Cross-Community Labour Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh today pledged that as a MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone in May he would demand Stormont provide proper resourcing of refuges for victims and survivors of domestic violence.

He explained his experience on this issue to date:

“As a councillor I was able to attend a presentation by Women’s Aid on the current problems they were facing. I was both shocked and dismayed to find out that due to Stormont cuts, there were no longer any dedicated domestic violence refuge units anywhere in Fermanagh.
“Subsequently I raised this issue publicly and repeatedly at council meetings and succeeded in getting the council to write to the Communities Minister demanding action. In response, a commitment was made to provide three domestic violence accommodation units in Enniskillen – which was a success.

“That said, even this provision is completely inadequate. It’s widely known that the number of reported incidents of domestic violence has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic but there is literally nowhere for those living in fear to go. This can be a life or death situation. Three or four emergency units are just not enough.”

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Latest housing stats expose Stormont parties are in the hip pocket of property developers

The latest statistics by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive confirm the long-term decline in public housing at the behest of policies enacted by consecutive Stormont Executives. The parties have consistently failed to properly invest in public housing despite a huge sell off of stock over recent decades.

Unfortunately, the latest statistics are released on a council based basis and not all councils have the 2021 figures published yet. That said, it is clear that public housing policy is totally inadequate in the face of massively mounting demand.

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Exposing the pollution of our waterways

For decades politicians have been silent on the well-known fact that raw sewerage has been routinely flowing into the River Erne. Former NI Water workers report sewerage having had to be suctioned out when the volumes got too great. Anglers report an underlayer of congealed waste in stagnant pools located around the town.

Like many other towns in the North, Enniskillen retains a Victorian-era style sewer system designed to deal with excessive volumes of brown water by allowing it to overflow into the river. The problem is that the system hasn’t received proper investment for decades so now every time we get a heavy rain (regularly!) sewer water floods out of the top of the combined sewer outlets. What is worse, it has been confirmed in writing to Cllr O’Cofaigh that grills meant to filter solid matter from overflowing have been removed to reduce costs of staff having to clear them out regularly (all to meet Stormont austerity budgets).

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Enniskillen needs a Post Office!

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.

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Fight to keep TV license for over-75s

Protest against TV license outside BBC in Belfast

One of the Tory government’s meanest measures was removing the free TV licence from the over-75s. This is an interview with John Martin from Enniskillen, Regional Secretary for Northern Ireland of the National Pensioners’ Convention.

Martin sees reversing the removal as very important. “It’s one of the most prioritised campaigns for the National Pensioners’ Convention,” he said.

Martin knows the importance of TV for many elderly people. “When I was a postman I used to see a lot of people out the countryside,” he said. “I can tell you about one man. I said to him: ‘Why do you have the TV on all day.’ ‘Because I can hear somebody talking.’ That sums up the loneliness a lot of old people feel.”

Martin sees the behaviour of the Tory government as ‘disgraceful.’ “They said in the last two manifestoes that the TV licence would not be touched,” he said. “It got up my nose the way the rich and the Establishment can pick on the poor people, the most vulnerable.”
Martin said he will be writing to the Convention’s General Secretary in London. “What steps are we going to take now?” he said. “Are we going to be more militant, more radical?”

He doesn’t yet know the tactics that will be used. One possibility is organising pensioners to pay their licence in instalments by cheque every month. “If all the pensioners pay by cheque, it will gum up the system,” he explained.

Another possibility is that pensioners will block roads. “Some us would take ten minutes to cross the road, let alone blockade it,” he explained.

Already, the Convention has organised protests at BBC buildings in Belfast and Radio Foyle, Derry. In Belfast they had about 50 protestors, blockaded the building, and got into the foyer for a while.

Whatever the tactics, the campaign will continue. “You have to keep battling on, it’s all we can do,” Martin said.

Five years ago, the Government shifted the cost of the free over-75s licence to the BBC. Until August 1st this year, it had been free.
The licence is now means-tested by the BBC. “The BBC does not have the expertise to do that,” Martin said. “As well, means testing is not fair. If a pensioner is a couple of shillings over, they have to pay the full licence.”

That meanness has infuriated a group the Tories saw as an easy mark.

Full-time fire service cover must return to Enniskillen

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.

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Seeds for future growth sown by anti-austerity, labour and trade union candidate

The launch of Caroline Wheeler’s election campaign in Fermanagh-South Tyrone

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.

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Cuts to Enniskillen fire service could have tragic consequences

Enniskillen fire station

The recent announcement that Enniskillen and Omagh are to have their fire cover cut to part-time in a matter of weeks should be a cause of grave concern to all of us.

These cuts could lead to long delays in responding to fires and other emergencies, potentially with tragic consequences. Fire service management say that the reduction in cover in Enniskillen and Omagh will only be temporary, but our experience across the public service is that when cuts are made, they are rarely reversed in this age of austerity.

The fire service faces a £3.2 million shortfall for this financial year. The budget allocated by the Department of Health simply has not reflected the rising demand on the service. Safety inspections of public buildings are being skipped just to plug the gaps. The reduction in fire cover across Northern Ireland will put lives at risk and, again, rural communities will be hit hardest.

I am pleased that the Fire Brigades Union has come out strongly against these cuts, which will also put their members at increased risk. I will seek to work alongside the FBU to oppose this reduction in cover and fight for the necessary funding – relatively a pittance – to be put in place so a safe service can be maintained for people in the Fermanagh & Omagh area and further afield. I intend to put a motion on the issue to the September meeting of the council.