Statement on death of Martin McGuinness


Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats Chair Stephen Glenn writes about the death of the former Deputy First Minister

Today was a day that all of us involved in Northern Irish politics had seen coming since the announcement in December that Martin McGuinness was cancelling a trip to China because of health reasons. When we last saw him in public it was his resignation as Deputy First Minister but the frailty we saw in him then contrasted to the images of him as a young man during the troubles.
Martin McGuinness

These images also showed the trajectory of the man from commander of the IRA in Derry/Londonderry to the respected elder statesman and one of the architects and sustainers of the peace in Northern Ireland. The tone of his words from his first appearances before the Northern Irish public to those at the latter stages of his political career also reflect the passage of Northern Irish politics.

While there have been some today who have only looked at the early part of his life as his legacy that have failed to realise that only a person from his position within the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin could have used his influence not only to bring about the ceasefire bit to sustain that. While at the start of his career he spoke about armed conflict being the only way forward, he ended it talking of reconciliation.

As the son of a man born like Martin into a community on the Cityside of Derry, although raised in the other working class community on opposite sides of the walled city, I’ve seen the change brough about by Martin.

The Rev David Latimer minister of the Glenn family church First Derry Presbyterian which overlooks the city walls into the Bogside has often spoken of Martin’s influence. This was a church that overlooked the site of the Bloody Sunday shootings, where shots, petrol or paint bombs were fired towards the church. It meant that in my early years when I entered the church even in the morning or afternoon it was dark because of the shutters protecting the windows at the front. When the roof needed replacing due to rot, Martin McGuinness was one of those who was reached out to even though he wasn’t elected for the area.

A hand of peace like that of the city’s famous statue was reached out and Martin was proactive not only in getting the support for the major building works but also in reducing the attacks on the church. He was there for the reopening of the building and the difference in brightness for me is a reflection of the hope he brought for a better future in Northern Ireland.

Yes the story of Martin McGuinness is a tangle of contrasts, but it is also proof that men are not leopards and can change their spots. But the legacy is his part, along with Ian Paisley, of making the impossible not only seem possible but turned it into a workable partnership of working together. We need that as much now as when they first stood side by side 10 years ago.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.


More heel dragging over Fatal Foetal Abnormality


Last night was almost 10 months after the Minster of Justice announced he would seek to introduce legislation to allow abortions in the case of Fatal Foetal Abnormality. This also came after some 18 months of careful examination of health and justice officials including a public consultation.

However, despite all this oversight an review the DUP proposed that the Health Minister set up another working group to look into this matter. This could take at least six months to report back, enough time for this issue not to be considered before the Assembly elections this May.

This is unacceptable and the 59 votes against making the change now from mainly Unionist* and SLDP* MLAs continue to fail to help the women in our part of the UK. They will for the next sixth months of longer still face the tough decisions about what to do if they are diagnosed with a Fatal Foetal Abnormality.

They will have to decide what they will do in isolation as health care professionals are not allowed to give them any advice. They will have to decide if they go somewhere over the Irish Sea where they possibly know nobody else to access services that are seen a medical procedure across Great Britain, to avoid all the trauma, illness, physical and emotional toil that carrying to term impart.

Our MLAs refused last night to take the tough decisions, so that the tough decisions that some of our women have to take remain tougher than elsewhere. They were not being asked to deny another life from existing, the clue is in the first word of extention that was being asked for.

These abnormalities are not ones that can be carried through into adulthood, or even much of childhood. They either don’t survive outside the womb or for a very short period. A short period during which there may be attachment before that is ripped apart.

The emotional and physical well being of our women was not a consideration of the delay of another 6 months by our elected representatives yesterday. The fact that we are almost 50 years behind the rest of the UK in not allowing our women to abort if there is a FFA means that 6 months is not just six months too much it is the 98th six month that is too much.

* Unionists in favour were Mike Nesbitt, Andy Allen and Michael McGimpsey UUP, Basil McCrea NI21 and John McAllister Ind.

** Claire Hanna of the SDLP Abstained by voting in both lobbies.

Concern about the future of Causeway Hospital


Causeway Hospital - - 1154840
The Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats have received expressions of concern from a number of stakeholder parties at uncertainties over the future of Causeway Hospital in Coleraine, currently under review by the Department of Health at Stormont as an aspect of the Transforming Your Care programme.

The difficulties at Causeway are acknowledged by all, and constitute a major impediment to the delivery of healthcare to North Antrim and the North Coast. These stem principally from an inability to recruit and retain senior Medical and Surgical professionals at Causeway, especially in the areas of Emergency Medicine and Maternity.

Causeway Hospital currently operates within the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, and as such, it shares many services, including the services of many Consultants and an entire spectrum of less-visible activities such as nursing, supply, Biomedical Science services, etc with other institutions of the Northern HSC Trust including Antrim Hospital. One possible “solution” mooted for the senior staffing difficulties is the transfer of Causeway from the Northern HSC Trust to the Western HSC Trust. The principal motivation being suggested for such change is the potential for new multi-centre working arrangements between Causeway and Altnagelvin Hospitals.

We are seriously concerned that such a proposal does not adequately acknowledge the existing multicentre arrangements from which Causeway benefits in the Northern Trust. Many of these arrangements have been put in place at considerable cost in recent years following the merger of the former United Hospitals, Homefirst and Causeway Trusts.

It should be pointed out also that within the current fourfive-Trust [thanks @Alanlaw] structure in Northern Ireland, community and acute services reside within the same Trusts. Thus, any transfer of Causeway would have to be accompanied by a transfer of community medical, mental health and social care provision in North Antrim and on the North Coast. We suggest that this depth of change to healthcare in the Causeway area is an unnecessarily disruptive answer to the difficulties at hand.

Again, we do not seek to deny the seriousness of the shortfalls at Causeway, or the difficulties faced by the Department of Health in trying to put them right. We acknowledge that provision here has been overly territorial and insufficiently collaborative as many within healthcare in Northern Ireland will admit. However, that surely points to a possible alternative pathway — The further development of Causeway Hospital need not be a zero-sum process. — Even at a time of comparative scarcity in the NHS, we feel that there is potential within both Trusts for the Department to find, even perhaps to pioneer, better networking arrangements which enable Causeway’s existing strengths and relationships to continue as new capabilities are created for the benefit of all in North Antrim and on the North Coast.

Discipline decisions should not be a petition of concern


The news today is that the impending disciplinary debate into the actions of the DUP’s Jim Wells will be subject to a petition of concern from his party. On their parties website they say:

We want to normalise our institutions and political arrangements to demonstrate that democratic standards apply and fairness and equality of opportunity is the right of all.

Yet how can this be the case if they are requiring a qualified majority over a simple disciplinary matter against one of their own members, one that by instigating the petition of concern they can win by whipping their own MLAs even if they cannot rely on the UUP for support. That is not normalisation, nor is it demonstrating that democratic standards apply for fairness to all.

Now what has gone on between Mr Wells and Carál Ní Chuilín or Mary McArdle would appear to not be normal in the line of politics. Elsewhere in the UK where I have been active while I disagree on policy or the long-term separatist approach of some relations have always been convivial. Although of the member in question I know first hand that his dealings with those of opposite views is not always thus.

After the debate and before the vote on equal marriage last month I ran into Mr Wells in the canteen at Stormont. As I had met him before I decided to open a conversation with a friendly “Hello Jim”, he turned put on seeing my LGBT+ Lib Dems badge retorted “Oh, you’re one of them” before turning his back on me. My follow up questions about the state of health of my second cousin’s mother-in-law, Mrs Wells, and the rest of the family had to go unanswered.

So the possibility that Mr Wells may have had behaved in an “angry, venomous and intimidating” manner to Ms Ní Chuilín or would call Ms McArdle either “the murderer herself” or as he claimed in correct “the monster advisor” does not seem far fetched nor impossible to me.

If the DUP again in their own words want Northern Ireland to be “a place welcoming to all” they need to start with their own representatives from the very halls and stairwells of Stormont. Using a petition of concern as a means to prevent disciplinary action against someone who seems to not be able to be civil while disagreeing on direction or policy is a further misuse and continuation away from normal politics as in any other legislature the member would have been suspended for a period of time for such behaviour.

Here in Northern Ireland we still have a long way to go to be normal it seems.

Update on Monday, 19 November the debate was held and the vote for exclusion was defeated 49 voting for and 51 against

Statement on marriage equality debate


This afternoon Stephen Glenn, co-ordinator of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats Northern Ireland, sat in the gallery of the Assembly while our MLAs debated the motion from the Green Party and Sinn Féin about marriage equality. He was not alone as a large number of equal marriage campaigners were there in the hope that the DUP’s petition of concern would prove to be the only way this motion could be defeated. Sadly it was defeated by four votes even without it.

Forty five of our MLAs did vote for it, one sole unionist voice, that of Basil McCrea spoke in favour despite saying “many in my community are deeply uneasy about it”. He went on to challenge those who said we cannot redefine marriage by pointing out that our state had in the past about my reformed groups including Presbyterians. Before saying something that pretty much summed up the concept of this motion:

“Allowing one group to use a word does not diminish its use by another, and the context will be understood by all. Society accepting equal marriage does not mean that everyone has to agree with the practice.”

However, one minister speaking in a ‘personal’ capacity said the motion was ‘pointless’ and a ‘worthless course to follow’. Another, who responsibility presenting the legislation would be said “I have no intention of bringing forward any legislation to this House to facilitate gay marriage” even before a democratic vote was taken on the issue to ask him to do so.

Speaking after the debate Stephen Glenn said:

“It was great to have this debate take place in Stormont today, it is sign that we have come a long way. I’d like to praise those MLAs and parties that have taken a stance today for equal marriage and the LGBT community, even though the votes did not go in favour. I know that many have come on a long journey both individually and collectively to stand beside the LGBT community today on this issue.

“However, it is sad that a Democratic Unionist Minister should state in his speech that he would fail to act even if a democratic vote, not then taken, asked him to on this matter. While another unionist minister considered it pointless and a worthless cause. This isn’t a sectarian issue despite the petition of concern and how the vote looked today, and I’d particularly like to thank Basil McCrae and his two party colleagues for their support in the division today.

“Bizarrely, after the Covenant celebrations, it seems the unionist side is less able to debate civil freedoms without religious overtones as those that feared Home Rule would bring a hundred years ago. So even though a motion on a tough issue managed to address civil and religious freedom for all it was knocked down. In the words of Mr Wilson they have chosen a road and are unable to facilitate, or even contemplate trying to facilitate other routes.

“However, with 45 MLAs voting for we know that the pendulum of political and public opinion has swung a fair way from previous debates on LGBT issues.”

Local party chair John O’Neill added:

“It is profoundly disappointing, to the NI Liberal Democrats, and to all the people of Northern Ireland, that the Assembly has voted to reject marriage equality. The agreements which instituted the Assembly, and from which its authority is derived, have at their heart equality of citizenship. Not just across the Unionist-Nationalist dyad, but across the whole of the increasingly diverse Northern Ireland, which we all celebrate.

“It is sad that the political representatives of the first nation within the United Kingdom to institute Civil Partnerships have today rejected the obvious next step in the full equalisation of same-sex relationships. However, we are confident that, as debate on this matter continues at Westminster, Cardiff and Holyrood, this is not the last time that this matter will be addressed at Stormont. We are confident also that our MLAs will look to the decisions made in other capitals of the UK, and will not impose second-class citizenship upon the Lesbian and Gay citizens of Northern Ireland.

“Meanwhile,we will continue to work to persuade others both in office and those who elect them to achieve our party’s policy on equal marriage here in Northern Ireland, as our colleagues do so elsewhere in the UK.”

Education Minister fails to build shared education future


John O’Dowd addressing the Assembly

Today the Education Minister John O’Dowd has named 18 schools that would benefit from the £173m new building fund, but most startling in their omission is the fast growing integrated sector. Is this a failure for a shared education future in Northern Ireland that we are building 18 new segregated schools with the best facilities, while many of our integrated schools are having to squeeze pupils into temporary accommodation.

One of the integrated Primary Schools that is desperately crying out for a new building in Bangor Central Integrated Primary, which is incredibly next to a soon to be vacated site. Due to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure providing a £15m grant towards the £38m new swimming and leisure complex a large site in Bangor’s central education cluster would have been available if the Department of Education had wanted to step in. However, this site has been sold by North Down Council for private housing development due to inaction by the local education board and successive Education Ministers.

It does seem that the integrated education sector has suffered when it comes to building schemes under the continual reign of Sinn Féin ministers at the Department of Education.

In the 18 schools he has managed to find funding for 3 special needs schools and 2 Irish medium schools, controlled and Catholic primary schools yet failed to fill any of the needs for the integrated schools. It is a glaring omission for one sector to me missed out with 18 projects, especially when that is the one sector that is teaching our children practically to live, learn and play side by side in a shared today not waiting for a future.

It appears that the minster is prepared to talk about a shared future, included future funding for integrated education, but not prepared to fund it today.

McGuinness to quit Westminster seat


Sinn Féin are showing they are serious about ending double jobbing with the announcement today that the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is to resign his Westminster seat for Mid Ulster and concentrate on his Assembly duties. There will be a by election in the Autumn.

However, four of his Stormont colleagues including the former Ministers for Agriculture and Rural Development Michelle Gildernew and for Regional Development Conor Murphy along with former Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty and recently elected MP Paul Maskey will all step down from their Assembly seats, in order for them to concentrate on spending more time avoiding the House of Commons chamber.

Mid Ulster Constituency

As the Assembly allows party’s to co-opt members to replace retiring or dying members there will not therefore be five by elections just the one in Mid Ulster. New MLAs will be appointed from within the party for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Newry and Armagh, West Tyrone and Belfast West.

Sinn Féin have held the Mid Ulster seat since 1997 when McGuinness defeated the DUP’s William McCrea by 1883 votes. McCrea tried to win it back in 1992 only to lose by almost 10,000 votes. Since then his son Ian, who is an MLA for the area,  has been the DUP candidate but by 2010 was 15,363 votes behind McGuinness  but only 50 votes ahead of the SDLP’s Tony Quinn. The UUP’s Women’s Development Officer and now MLA Sandra Overend came in fourth place.

It will be interesting to see if the other parties run MLA’s in this by election which is seen by one party as a way to end double jobbing. Especially as both the main Unionist parties candidates last time either were or now are MLAs.