Sunday, 16 September 2012

SDLP and 'civil disobedience'

In an earlier post I referred to the fact that the SDLP was born out of a campaign that employed civil disobedience and the new party continued to employ that tactic.
There is a helpful reference to this in Identity, Ideology and Conflict: The Structuration of Politics in Northern Ireland by Dr John Daniel Cash (p 158), which was published by Cambridge University Press in 1996: 
This policy of internment drew hostile responses from both the SDLP and the Provisionals. ... [The SDLP] constructed their campaign of dissent in liberal forms.  Continuing to advocate non-violence, they extended the civil disobedience campaign which they had renewed after their withdrawal from Stormont in July.  In the following terms they called on civil servants to resign and announced a 'rent and rates' strike against local government institutions:
We call on all who hold public positions in Northern Ireland, whether elected or appointed, to express their opposition by immediately withdrawing from those positions and to announce their withdrawal publicly and without delay ...  We call on the general public to participate in this protest by immediately withholding all rent and rates.  We expect one hundred per cent support from all opponents of internment.
In view of recent comments by SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell is he now prepared to condemn the campaign of civil disobedience initiated by its founding fathers in 1971?

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Newton Emerson and the Housing Executive

Newton Emerson's 'look back at the week' in the Irish News often contains interesting observations but sometimes he just gets it wrong and today was a good example of that.
On Wednesday the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont considered an Audit Office report on Northern Ireland Housing Executive maintenance contracts.  It is a damning report and highlights a number of major issues.
The chief executive of the Housing Executive, John McPeake, and Will Haire, the permanent secretary in DSD, appeared before the PAC and Newton Emerson commented as follows:
John McPeake, head of the Housing Executive, says an Audit Office report into bogus repair work by contractors is 'a stain on the record' of his organisation. However the stain spreads wider than that. Documents obtained by The Detail website show that when the Hosuing Executive cancelled a £7 million deal with one of the contractors, east Belfast-based Red Sky, DUP politicians including housing minister Nelson McCausland and first minister Peter Robinson accused it of 'sectarian bias' and lobbied frantically to have the contract restored.
Will Haire, the top civil servant in Mr McCausland's department, took his minister's side and relations soured so completely that Mr McPeake's predecessor resigned.
We await stain-removing remarks from the DUP, the Department of Social Development and the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Under my SDLP predecessor, Alex Attwood, there was a thorough investigation into one maintenance contractor, Red Sky.  As a result and just as I came into DSD, the Housing Executive terminated their contracts and transferred them to other contractors.
However there was no investigation into other contractors, including those to whom the contracts were transferred, to see if similar problems existed in relation to those companies.
I wanted to be assured that other contractors were not acting improperly and so I commissioned the consultants who had already investigated Red Sky to investigate other adjacent contractors.  Just before the summer recess I received the initial report from that investigation and the final report will follow in due course.  However it is already clear that the issues identified in Red Sky were not restricted to Red Sky.  They existed in a number of other contractors.  That is something I have placed on record in the Assembly on several occasions.  The concerns that I raised last summer have therefore been fully vindicated.
The penultimate sentence of the article by Newton Emerson states that 'relations soured so completely that Mr McPeake's predecessor resigned.'  However it was not Mr McPeake's presdecessor who resigned.  John McPeake is the chief executive and his predecessor was an acting chief executive, whose temporary tenure ended naturally after the appointment of the new chief executive.  The person to whom he is referring is probably the former chair, Brian Rowntree, who resigned at the end of June.  That is a pretty fundamental error and such a fundamental error totally undermines the credibility of Newton Emerson's article.  It also exposes the shallowness of his understanding.
John McPeake was right when he told the PAC that the Housing Executive's management and monitoring of maintenance contracts was 'a stain on the record' of his organisation.  Not only were false claims made by some contractors but those false claims were approved by Housing Executive staff.  There was indeed a breakdown within the Housing Executive in relation to the management and monitoring of maintenance contracts.
I have a double responsibility in this matter - a responsibility to tenants, who deserve a good quality service, and a responsibility to the tax payer, to ensure that money is not wasted.  Moreover money that is paid out for work that has not been done is money that is not available for other maintenance work.  
We now have a new contracts system in place and that system will be monitored carefully but it is important to get to the bottom of what went wrong, as far as that is possible, because that is the right thing to do and it is what the general public will expect.

SDLP has a narrow sectarian agenda

In the Assembly on Monday, the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell complained to the Speaker that I had broken the Ministerial Code of Conduct and violated the Ministerial Pledge of Office.  In order to continue their narrow petty political point scoring game the SDLP is now trying to collect enough MLAs' signatures to move a no-confidence motion about me in the Assembly.  They need 30 MLAs.  The SDLP want to misrepresent what I said for the sake of a few moments of publicity, which in the end will be of no benefit to them or the people they say they represent.
I have not broken the Ministerial Code of Conduct or the Pledge of Office and I totally refute any suggestion to the contrary.  Anyone who has read the transcript of what I actually said will already know that.  Any public comments that I have made in the past or will make in the future do not need to be interpreted by the SDLP.  I continue to support and uphold the rule of law ... not the version as determined by the narrow sectarian agenda of the SDLP.
I remain focused on working with all sections of the community to deliver a long term solution to the problems of North Belfast.  Whether it be socially, economically or politically I and my colleagues are first and foremost interested in building a community in North Belfast that is both peaceful and prosperous.
Sectarian behaviour and violence have no place in our society.  They are wrong and must always be condemned.  If we are to build a shared future, it must be built on mutual respect and tolerance.  That is what I am working to achieve across the community of North Belfast.  Regulations will not solve our problems but relationships can.  That is why I welcome the statements by the Loyal Orders in relation to the events outside St Patrick's Church in Donegal Street.  They demonstrated maturity and have undoubtedly helped to create a better atmosphere.
Such maturity is sadly lacking from the new SDLP leadership of today.  Their stance on the right to exercise peaceful protest is in reality an attack on the position of the founding fathers of the SDLP, demonstrates the immaturity of their thinking and is a total repudiation of such renowned world figures as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.  After all, the SDLP evolved from the civil rights parades and protests of the late 1960s.

President Arthur's ancestral home

The ancestral home of American president Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886), in Cullybackey, was gutted in a blaze in May 2011.  This was a terrible tragedy but the home is set to rise from the ashes.  It is owned by Ballymena Borough Council and the councillors have approved the refurbishment of the building at a cost of £135,000.
The project will involve repairing the existing cottage and improving exhibition areas in surrounding outbuildings.
Chester Alan Arthur was the 21st president of the United States of America, holding office from 1881 to 1885.  His father William Arthur (1797-1875), a Presbyterian Ulster-Scot, emigrated from Ulster to Canada and then settled across the border in the United States.  There he joined the Free Will Baptists and became a minister in that denomination.  He also became an outspoken adovcate of the abolition of slavery.
The contribution of Ulster folk, especially Ulster-Scots, to the making of modern America is remarkable and deserves to be celebrated.  It also has great potential as part of our tourist offering and we need to focus on developing this aspect of the offering.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The man in the blue bib

A DUP colleague drew my attention to the North Belfast Sinn Fein blog and an article, posted on 27 August 2010, about North Belfast man Fra Hughes, who is pictured with local Sinn Fein councillor Conor Maskey.
The blog post reports that Fra Hughes, a North Belfast businessman, is a supporter of Palestine and a quick trawl of the internet reveals that 'Fra Hughes founded Belfast Friends of Palestine and is highly active in the struggle against the Israeli occupation'.  It seems that he is also a practitioner of reiki, a form of alternative therapy.
The friend who drew my attention to this Sinn Fein blog post pointed out the similarity between the man in the picture above and the person who was wandering about on the Crumlin Road this summer wearing a blue bib as a 'human rights observer'.  He was very keen to film people from the unionist and loyalist community but when he was asked to identify himself he refused to do so.  Moreover the same 'human rights observer' features prominently in a vitriolic youtube video documentary, providing a staunchly republican and thoroughly perverse view of Orange parades.
The similarity is indeed remarkable and it seems that our blue-bibbed 'human rights observer' is indeed Fra Hughes, unless of course he has a double!.  I can't understand why he was unwilling to identify himself when he is happy to do so on the Sinn Fein blog and numerous youtube videos relating to Palestine.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Clifton Street graveyard

The Clifton Street Cemetery is one of the most interesting and historic of the graveyards in Belfast.  It was created at the end of the 18th century, at a time when Belfast was very much an Ulster-Scots town, and contains the graves of many interesting people, including indutrialists, shipbuilders, newspapermen, ministers and politicians, both unionists and United Irishmen.  Many of the complexities and contradictions of Ulster history are illustrated in the headstones.
I have given occasional guided tours of the graveyard in the past and have been asked by a local cultural group to lead another tour this Saturday morning at 10.30am.  There is no charge, anyone is welcome to join us and we will be assembling at the gate in Henry Place.