Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Report shows Government are failing children

An important report was published last week which clearly exposed how the Governments latest budget targeted children and how national health policy is also failing children. The Children’s Rights Alliance Report Card 2010 provides a comprehensive overview of how the State performed in its services to children in 2009. The Report shows an overall disimprovement on 2008 when the Government was given a Grade of D; this year's grade is 'D minus' which I believe is a true reflection of the situation.

Budget 2009 and 2010 have targetted low income families with children. The failure to eliminate child poverty during the 'Celtic Tiger' period is compounded now by measures which are worsening the lives of low income families. The cuts to Child Benefit and to education are especially damaging and will have long-term negative consequences for children. It is little wonder that the Report Card gives the Government an 'E' mark for the 'material well being' of children.

The Report's overview of health services for children is especially damning. Across the range of essential health services - primary care, therapeutic services, hospital care, mental health - the story is the same. Children are being let down, early intervention is not happening, services are either not in place or inadequate, waiting times are inordinately long. As the Report states, access to to healthcare is a right for every child and cannot be set aside in a recession but this is the danger we face.

The Report's finding that the Government is 'seriously behind target' on the provision of the long promised primary care network is important. As the Report states 'for children, the kind of community-based, early intervention and preventive healthcare services provided within a primary care structure are critical'. I agree with the Report's call for the ring-fencing of multi-annual funding for the development of primary care. The Government must take very seriously and act upon this and all the other recommendations of the Report.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Billy Elliot musical and class politics

I visited London recently and went to see the musical Billy Elliot. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It was entertaining, emotional, thought provoking and extremely relevant given the times we are in. Based on the film of the same name, this is the story of a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, even though his father wants him to box. It is set in Northern England in the 1980s at a time of grave industrial unrest. Margaret Thatcher had all but declared war on the trade union movement. The main character Billy is the son of a striking coal miner.

The musical excellently captures the hardship and difficulties faced by the miners. Whole communities were demonised and divide and conquer tactics were used to pit worker against worker. I am not going to get into the rights and wrongs of the strike only to say that history never fails to repeat itself.

As unemployment again reaches record levels both in Ireland and the UK it is ordinary people who suffer most. The wealthy are protected and workers who attempt to fight back and take a stand are demonised. We all know the mantra – sure aren’t you lucky you have a job. I genuinely believe that most politicians have no understanding of what it is like to live in poverty, to survive on social welfare or on low pay. The sad reality is that it is often children who suffer most. There are many Billy Elliots’ out there, dreaming of better things as the system works against them. The musical portrays class politics in a very vivid way and its portrayal of the trials and tribulations of a working class family from the North of England are every bit as relevant as the time in which they were set.

When is a deal not a deal?

In 2006 I travelled to Scotland to take part in negotiations aimed at bringing about agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The discussions lasted a number of days and the end product was the St. Andrews Agreement. This paved the way for the restoration of the Northern Institutions and in devolving power on policing and justice from Westminster to the assembly. A deal was done and all parties signed up including the DUP.

The deal was straightforward. As a pre-requisite to re-establishing the institutions Sinn Féin was to hold a special Ard Fhéis accepting policing in the North. This was done. Sinn Féin was to take its place on newly established policing boards. This was done. A timeframe for devolving policing and justice powers was to be set. This was done. However the timeframe has not been met. Indeed several agreed dates have come and gone.

There is an attempt by some to downplay or dismiss the importance of all of this. No devolved Government can properly function without having democratic control over policing and justice matters. The clandestine makeup of the Northern Ireland Office, MI5 and MI6 cannot continue to set the agenda. In short we must implement what it is we agreed.

The DUP are reneging on clear commitments. They are desperately trying to spin their way out of implementing the St. Andrews Agreement of which both Governments are co-signatures. The optics of the presence of both Government leaders is twisted to present an image of two parties who are unable to agree and who need paternal support. This is far from the truth. Sinn Féin implemented its side of the bargain within three months. Three years on and we are still waiting for the DUP to move. How much longer should we participate in a sham assembly- a month- a year – another three years? We have made the call and we are no longer willing to participate in a sham. The DUP must move and if they do so they will find very willing and able coalition partners.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Crystal City will sparkle once more

The last few weeks have been bitter sweet for Waterford. A sad and somewhat bitter taste was left in the mouths of many as the Waterford Crystal Kilbarry Plant and visitors centre closed its doors. I cannot imagine the mix of sadness and anger that former Waterford Crystal workers must feel. To have been left high and dry without an adequate redundancy package was compounded by a collapse of the pension fund. It should never have happened.

They say every cloud has a silver lining. I tend to agree. I suppose it means that we should always look for the positive in everything and look to turn a disaster into an opportunity. Waterford City Council, through the offices of the City Manager and the support of the full council were instrumental in returning Crystal Manufacturing to the City. Opportunities have to be grasped and in this instance we did so with both hands. The formal announcement by the WWRD Group that crystal manufacturing will resume in the heart of the city centre is fantastic news.

What is striking is how quickly this is all coming together. The sight of cranes, scaffolding and builders on the old ESB site is a joy to behold. Hopefully the June target of being ‘open for business’ will be met. I have no doubt that it will. The artist’s impression of what the finished product will look like is impressive. It was not so long ago that I and many others were calling for the building to be demolished. Than disaster struck and the economy collapsed. But again disaster was turned into opportunity and with a little bit of foresight we have something special. I look forward to the grand opening.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

14,345 people out of work in Waterford City - Where is the jobs plan?

The live register figures for Waterford City in December 2009 were a disaster – 10,449 people out of work. You would have expected any Government worth their salt to act. You would have expected an end to the slash and burn policies and the taking of money out of the economy. You would have expected an economic stimulus plan aimed at getting people back to work. You would have expected action. Instead we got inaction and a continuation of the same failed policies. A year on from that disastrous jobless figure we have 14,345 people in Waterford out of work. The Government has clearly failed.

Last year Sinn Féin launched local and national job creation documents. Our national plan was well received by small businesses struggling to survive and economists screaming for action on the jobs front. Last September I published a local Sinn Fein document – Getting Waterford Back to Work outlining specific proposals that could in the short and long term help Waterford’s local economy stave off the worst effects of the economic downturn while also leaving it better placed to grow sustainably in the future.

These proposals include helping local firms access National and EU funding, arranging a meeting of local bank managers to discuss in a transparent way banking practises and help get credit flowing, the front loading of key infrastructure and employment intensive programmes, moving forward with transport infrastructure plans, more regional spending in Green Technology, support for locally driven R&D as a new platform for job creation, revive crystal manufacturing in the city and the establishment of an educational taskforce to help those who have lost their jobs.

In our national pre-budget submission Sinn Féin called for a €3.6 Billion economic stimulus plan. The budget came and went and with it no plan. Instead they simply cut the rate of those on social welfare and left these people high and dry.

Since then the country has been in the grip of a crisis with water shortages in parts of the country and flooding in other parts. Our roads are crumbling beneath us while our water systems are failing. Children are being taught in sub-standard facilities. Yet local authorities are being stretched as staff numbers are being reduced due to the employment embargo. Waterford City Council lost over 70 staff members in the last eighteen months.

We need to use public sector and direct public employment to kick start the economy. New thinking is required. We need to increase and modernise CE schemes and invest in state infrastructure. The National Development Plan has to be completely redrawn to focus on the more labour intensive and necessary infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, energy efficiency in homes, remedial works and public transport provision. I could go on.

Bearing in mind the high jobless figure I would like to see, in addition to privately contracted infrastructure, a ‘National Development Scheme’ to employ people directly by the state on public works projects aimed at redressing our infrastructural deficit, in repairing our roads and water networks and in Waterford our tourism infrastructure. The bottom line is that we need urgent Government action to create jobs and get people back to work.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Resignation of Killian Forde regrettable

I am both sad and angry to hear of the resignation from Sinn Féin by Cllr Killian Forde. Sad in that it is a loss to the party and angry in that it seems he will not resign his seat and return it to the party. The latter is important to me as someone who signed a pledge in the presence of my party colleagues stating that if I resigned I would return the seat to the party. I took the pledge in the full knowledge that I was standing for a political party and not as an independent. I was campaigning with materials, posters and leaflets paid for with party funds raised by the hard work of local party activists. And it was those activists who gave up their free time to canvass and help get me elected. The same is true for Killian. The honourable thing to do is to resign your seat and hand it over to a replacement of the party’s choosing.

Killian cited organisational and policy deficits within the party as reasons for resigning. I think most political parties and indeed voluntary organisations are experiencing organisational problems. In some respects it is a sign of the times. We have to continue to give leadership and encourage people to get involved. Resigning will not solve that particular problem.

The issue of there being a policy deficit puzzles me. A lot of good work has been done in recent times to present credible, workable and practical economic, fiscal and social policies. Our job creation document ‘Getting Ireland back to work’ is full of innovative proposals aimed at stimulating economic growth. The 2009 Pre-Budget Submission was the best of any political party advocating for an economic stimulus plan, a household stimulus package for struggling families and addressing the deficit. It gave real leadership.

There is no point pretending that the party does not have any problems. We do. We are too small. We need to grow. A small party will always struggle to get its message across particularly through a hostile mainstream media. And yes we need a more southern leadership. But this will only happen if we get more people in the South elected to the Dáil. Again resigning will not achieve this. Nor will joining a political party ready to hitch itself to Fine Gael.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Iris Robinson must go

The extraordinary affair between Iris Robinson and a young 21 year old man has rocked the political establishment in the north. This is undoubtedly a very difficult time for the Robinson family and especially so for her husband and First Minister Peter. Extra-marital affairs are not resigning matters and despite the public profile of those involved are private matters. However in the case of Iris what are much more damaging are the financial irregularities surrounding this story. That she took money from businessmen, failed to declare it, handed it over to someone of which she was having an affair and took a portion back for herself means she has to go.

It is difficult to have any sympathy for Iris. She has made a career out of moralising and judging peoples behaviour. She hurt and insulted the gay community when she said they were people who needed to be ‘fixed’ and called their sexual preference an ‘abomination’. It also seems that she abused her position as a woman with power and authority in her relationship with this young man. Whatever about all of that the financial misdemeanours’ involved means that she must step down from all positions of authority.

It is too early to say how this will play out for her husband Peter. It is hard not to have sympathy for the man. On the face of it, it seems he did nothing wrong although some may question his judgement. I think he should be given some space to deal with this. It remains to be seen how the fundamentalist base of the DUP react. And all of this is taking place against a background of a real crisis within the political institutions. Lets all hope for a positive outcome.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Waterford Crystal site – dereliction not an option

The announcement that the former Waterford Crystal site at Kilbarry is ‘up for sale’ caught few by surprise but is big news nonetheless. It will understandably hurt former crystal workers who got such a raw deal with little redundancy and pension packages. It now remains to be seen what happens with the site and no doubt it will provoke a lot of local debate and discussion. Unfortunately the decision making is out of our hands and we can only hope that the best is made of such a prime site.

The timing of the sale could not be worse. The city already has a lot of unsold and underdeveloped land banks. The property crash and credit crunch is taking its toll and is clearly visible. There is very little development taking place in the city and the omens are not good as the site hits the open market. There is the possibility of developers buying the site for manufacturing purposes and this would be a good option if something solid was to emerge. Heaven knows we need the jobs.

However I think given the strategic importance of the site and its close proximity to W.I.T. a compelling case can be made for the I.T. to purchase the site. There are a number of good reasons for this. (1) They will not get a better site in a better location and in such close proximity to the existing campus at a better price. (2) It is a 36 acre site the front of which is adequately zoned for development – as an opportunity site. (3) It has the potential to provide overflow car parking much needed at the I.T. and would eliminate intrusive parking in neighbouring estates. (4) It would be a good strategic move as the I.T. moves towards University Status.

I have no doubt that the Management of W.I.T. would have an interest in the site. However I doubt they have the financial means to go it alone. It the purchase of the site by W.I.T. is a realistic proposition then Government support will be necessary. It is important that we do not play political games with this issue. We must provide some space for discussions to ensue and I am sure the Management of the Institute are already engaged in this. What we must avoid most is the site becoming dormant or worse derelict. We already have enough derelict sites and buildings in the city. Look at the Jury’s Hotel Site for example. I hope that something positive happens. In the meantime we must do all we can to ensure that the planned Crystal Project for the City Centre proceeds as speedily as possible as this is vital for tourism in the city and the local economy.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cold snap may last for some time yet

The cold December snap is now extending into January. And it seems it will last for a little longer then expected. It is not without its consequences. Many roads are impassable and it seems grit is in short supply. Treacherous roads are causing travel chaos all over the country. People in some rural parts of Waterford are isolated and in parts are confined to their homes. Local authorities barely have the resources to grit major roads with secondary and rural roads left untreated. Why are we always so unprepared for such events?

Another consequence is the need to use greater fuel to heat our homes. This will be difficult for many low income families and those on social welfare. For many such families the entire winter budget may already be exhausted and this at a time when the latest social welfare cuts kick in. There is a compelling case for the introduction of an emergency payment to all fuel allowance recipients. Given the latest social welfare cuts it is the very least the Government can do. It is vital that every assistance is given to struggling families to ensure that homes are heated adequately and that people do not suffer illness or in extreme cases death as a result of the cold.

I would also urge all citizens to direct their thoughts, and actions where possible, at the least well off, including the homeless, those with inadequate heating, the elderly living alone, both in isolated rural Waterford and in our urban environments. They all need our assistance, however little we might have to give. Our time might be all that is required. Showing our concern in a real and practical way can bring a warm glow into the lives of others.