Monday, 26 November 2012

Knights of St Columbanus

The Irish News (22 November) has a review of a new book about the founder of the Knights of St Columbanus, Canon James Kearney O'Neill.
O'Neill was born at Ballypatrick, near Ballycastle, in 1857. 

After studying at St Malachy's Diocesan College in Belfast and Maynooth College he entered the Roman Catholic priesthood and in 1906 he was appointed parish priest of the Sacred Heart parish, Oldpark Road, Belfast.
He established the Knights of St Columbanus in 1915 and as regards this organisation I have taken the following from an excellent booklet, Brotherhoods of Ireland, which was written by Anthony D Buckley and Kenneth Anderson and published by the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in 1988 to accompany an exhibition.
The Order of the Knights of St Columbanus was formally founded in 1922.  The organisation arose, however, in the period before the Great War, when working people and others were organising themselves as never before into trade unions, friendly societies, temperance societies, Hibernian, Orange, Masonic and other groups based upon the brotherhood ideal.  Father James K O'Neill, a parish priest in Belfast's Oldpark district, who was much concerned with the then recently defined Roman Catholic 'social principles' tried to draw Catholic men into a society 'to cherish fraternal charity and to develop practical Catholicity among its members, to promote and foster the cause of the Catholic faith and Catholic education'.  By early 1916 there were four 'Councils of Knights' in Belfast from which they assembled a Board of Governors.  Soon more Councils of Knights were formed in Armagh, Cork, Derry, Dublin, Lurgan, Newry and Portadown.
Meanwhile, there was already in esistence a body known as the Columban Knights whose aims seemed to have been very much the same as the Knights of St Columbanus.  At the insistence of Archbishop Byrne, who had bneen one of the first priest-members of the Columban Knights, these two Orders were amalgamated and effectively the present Order of the Knights of St Columbanus came into existence.
In the early years, the Knights of St Columbanus had secret signs and rituals in the same manner as other brotherhoods.  Its rituals were based on those of an American Catholic organisation, the Knights of St Columbus.  Nowadays, as has happened in many other brotherhoods, the original secretive rituals have been modified to a non-secret and simpler form.
That covers the early years of the Knights of St Columbanus but it is only the beginning of the story.  During the years of 'Rome rule' in Eire the Knights of St Columbanus were one of a number of organisations that promoted that agenda.  For example,they were at the heart of the Meath Hospital controversy in Dublin in 1949.

The new biography of Canon O'Neill was written by Frank Rogers, who lives in Ballycastle, and can be obtained directly from him or from Impact Printing in Ballycastle.


Built heritage is cultural heritage

More than 61,000 people took part in this year's European Heritage Open Day by visiting one of the historic buildings and architectural treasures that were opened on the day.  That shows just how much interest there is in our built heritage and how much it is valued.
Recently I visited a new housing development at Whiteabbey where an old house named Abbey Hill at 466 Shore Road, Newtownabbey, has been turned into four beautiful new apartments in a development carried out by Oaklee Homes Group, one of our local housing associations.  Abbey Hill had been derelict for some time but the new £1.1m scheme has delivered ten homes and my department supported this through the Housing Association Grant.

Later the same day I visited the new Ards Community Network Hub in Newtownards to officially open the new complex.  This was formerly two large houses but they have been turned into magnificent offices for a number of community and voluntary organisations.

Here are two good examples of older buildings being retained and brought back into use.  Such buildings are part of our built heritage and they should also be valued as part of our cultural heritage.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Signposts to funding for churches

Diane Dodds MEP has just produced a new resource for churches entitled Signposts to Funding for Churches and Faith-Based Organisations.  This was launched at the DUP Conference and will be available to churches very soon.
There is useful information on trusts and foundations, support for youth projects, support for international projects, and other helpful resources, as well as tips for writing a letter of application.
It also includes a short article on The Faith Sector and its role in helping government to reach those in or at risk of poverty.
The Mninister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, believes that there is a very criticial role to be played by the faith sector in developing strategic partnerships with Government to help deliver practical approaches to tackling poverty.  For this reason, the Minister funds the Faith Forum for Social Development.
He believes that working closely with partners not directly invovled in benefits advice, such as churches and faith-based groups, presents opportunities to reach those who are at risk of poverty and who could be vulnerable.  Churches are a critical component in our society and are at the coal face of the issues affecting communities.  No better partners exist to help Government ensure that those most in need are accessing their full entitlement to benefits and other Government services and support.
The Minister's plans for the 2012-13 Benefit Uptake Programme will test fresh approaches to reaching people with unclaimed entitlement by building new and stronger partnerships with civic, church and faith-based groups.
The Thriving Life Church in Newtownards and its Foodbank is one of a number of non-advice sector partners with which the Social Security Agency is engaging to improve benefit uptake through promotion, referrals and specific locally-run benefit uptake clinics.
Another example is Lisburn City Council's pilot Benefit Uptake Programme where all churches and faith-based groups in the Downshire electoral ward will promote benefit uptake.  They will refer others needing specialist advice to clinics being held locally.
Churches operating in Neighbourhood Renewal Areas and Areas at Risk across Northern Ireland often play a very valuable role with programmes they run in such areas.  Local DSD offices would be happy to discuss with local churches what assistance may be available to them for programmes directly meeting the Department's objectives in those specific areas.
Minister McCausland wants all faith-based groups to become engaged with the Department whether it is on local Neighbourhood Renewal Partnerships, benefit uptake or helping ensure the connections exist between vulnerable citizens and agencies such as the Social Security Agency or the Housing Executive.  There is no cost to them and only benefits to be gained by those most in need.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Shame of the SDLP

Raymond McCreesh mural
In Newry and Mourne District Council SDLP members have joined with Sinn Fein to retain the name of a park, which was named after an IRA terrorist.
The park, which includes a children's playground and sports pitches,was renamed in 2001 after convicted IRA terrorist and hunger-striker Raymond McCreesh.  
There has long been criticism of the name, which many people see as endorsing terrorism and there have been calls for the playground to be given a more appropriate name.
In 2008 the Equality Commission called for an equality impact assessment but a sub-committee of the council has just voted to retain the current name, Raymond McCreesh Park.  They decided that naming a park and a children's playground after an IRA terrorist complies with their legal obligation to promote equality of opportunity and good relations!
In 1977 McCreesh was convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, possession of firearms with intent to endanger life, and membership of the Provisional IRA.  Later he went on hunger strike and died in 1981.
Last year the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team linked McCreesh to a series of IRA murders committed with the Armalite rifle he was carrying when he was arrested, including the Kingsmills massacre in 1976.
According to a report in the NewsLetter, SDLP and Sinn Fein embers of the sub-committee voted to keep the name and it will now come before the full council meeting on Monday 3 December.
It is no surprise that Sinn Fein councillors endorsed the current name.  That is what one expects from Sinn Fein.  There have been changes in Sinn Fein but they still have some way to go and they still retain the bizarre position of saying that it is wrong to murder a policeman or a prison officer today but that during the Provisional IRA campaign it was not wrong to murder them.
However the real shame in this is the shame of the SDLP.  Under the bumbling leadership of Alasdair McDonnell MP MLA, the party stumbles from one disaster to another, unsure of itself and uncertain of what to do.  But is seems to be drawn towards the idea of being as green as Sinn Fein.  We have seen that in their support of dissident republican prisoners and their lack of principle in relation to the attempted murder of Councillor Sammy Brush.
So we will wait for Monday 3 December to see what they do when the matter comes to the full council.  It is possible that the decision to retain the current name of the playground was made at a local level in the SDLP with no input from the central leadership but the matter is now out in the media and the party leader cannot evade it.  Will he intervene or will he avoid the issue?  How these councillors vote will tell us much about them but it will also tell us much about Alasdair McDonnell and that is something that voters in South Belfast, unionist and nationalist, would do well to note.
Alasdair McDonnell, as leader of the SDLP, should tell us if he thinks it right to name a children's playground after a convicted killer ... and just in case he hasn't noticed the issue, the media should be asking him the question ... so over to you Irish News, over to you, Belfast Telegraph, over to you Talkback, and over to you, Stephen Nolan.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Francis Hutcheson

There was a letter in the Irish Times (19 November) about a great Ulster-Scot and one of the greatest Ulstermen of all time, Francis Hutcheson. This is part of the letter:
Hutcheson is regarded as 'The Father of the Scottish Enlightenment and must rank as one of the great thinkers of his era.
He worked as a teacher in Dublin from 1719 to 1730. His masterful work An Inquiry Concerning the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue was published in 1725. Appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow in 1730, Hutcheson had a profound influence on a generation of Scottish philosophers including Adam Smith and David Hume.
His writings also inspired the founders of the United States of America particularly Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Franklin described him as 'the ingenious Mr Hutcheson'.
Francis Hutcheson died in Dublin in 1747 when visiting friends in the city and he now lies in an unmarked grave in central Dublin.
Hutcheson was born at Dumalig in the parish of Saintfield and was the son of a Presbyterian minister of Ulster-Scots stock. Like many other Ulster-Scots he was educated at the University of Glasgow and then afterwards he became a tutor in the home of the Earl of Kilmarnock. In 1716 he was licensed as a minister of the Chruch of Scotland. However he was associated with liberal 'new licht' theology and became a teacher in an academy in Dublin.   Later he returned to Glasgow as professor of moral theology.
There have been many books written about the role of Ulster-Scots in the making of modern America, including the struggle for independence. Hutcheson never crossed the Atlantic but his radical ideas were taken to America by other Ulster-Scots and hence there was an influence on Jefferson and Franklin and other advocates of independence. He was one of a number of Ulster-Scots influences on the ideology of independence and he is someone of whom Ulster-Scots can be proud.

Sinn Fein support still on the slide

Back in February it was reported in the Sunday Times that support for Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic had risen to 25 percent, up 4 percent from the previous poll in December 2011.

However since then support for Sinn Fein has been dropping and that can be seen in the results of the poll published in the Sunday Times at the weekend - Fine Gael 30%, Fianna Fail 22%, United Left Alliance, independents and others 19%, Sinn Fein 14% and Green Party 3%.
The decline in support for Sinn Fein in the Irish Republic, from 25% down to 14%, is both substantial and significant.  It is true that these figures relate to the Republic but they do have a significance for folk in Northern Ireland.  The Sinn Fein project is a cross-border, or as they describe it 'all Ireland', project but the southern part of the republican project is not in great shape.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Housing speech at NIFHA conference

Recently I spoke at the 2012 conference of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations and this is the text of the speech.
Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, Conference Delegates. Many thanks for your warm welcome and kind invitation to join you on this, the second morning of your Annual Conference. I am very pleased to be able to address this distinguished gathering and to be able to share with you my views on the very important issues affecting social housing here in Northern Ireland.
Last year at your annual conference I issued a challenge to the housing association movement to be fit-for-purpose and just this week I received a letter updating me on your work in supporting the strengthening of the movement. I thank you for that and will take time to consider this update on your work.
From the economy, to social reform, to the need to support the most vulnerable, there are a wide range of challenges facing housing and how we respond to these challenges will, I believe, test not only our capability and capacity, but also our vision and resolve to transform our society and people’s lives for the better.
The theme of your conference is ‘Pursuing Excellence’ and I believe that is more appropriate now than ever before. To achieve excellence, one must be intentional and have vision. To that end I launched Northern Ireland’s first housing strategy on 15 October. Time does not permit me to cover the entire document but I would like to point to some of the proposals which address excellence.
We will continue to innovate in how new social housing is funded, building on the successes that you as Housing Associations have had in leveraging in private investment for new homes. We will improve standards in the private rented sector too so that no tenure here is viewed as inferior. Landlords will be registered, deposits protected and the regulation of houses in multiple occupation improved. Social housing should no longer be seen as an end in itself. We will seek ways to improve the energy efficiency of all housing stock here as a key weapon against fuel poverty and in line with good stewardship of our resources. We will raise the fitness standard for all homes, driving excellence forward, while reducing the unnecessary duplication and overlapping requirements which form a regulatory burden specific to social housing construction.
We will pursue excellence in housing services ensuring that the allocation of social homes is improved, that social housing stock is better utilised with services to assist under-occupying households to move if they wish. We will also develop an accessible housing register to better reuse adapted housing stock. We will fund housing advice services on these and other issues ranging from welfare reform to supported independent living. We will continue to fund Supporting People to help vulnerable households access and sustain private rented housing. We will act on the findings of the Interdepartmental Review of Housing Adaptations Services and commission primary research into the housing intentions of older people.
Our cities and towns have much that is excellent but some areas are in a cycle of blight. We will tackle blight in these areas, bringing empty homes back into use as decent homes, encouraging living over shops, taking measures against anti-social behaviour, creating jobs and apprenticeships for our young people and providing new opportunities for shared communities to flourish. The areas must flourish and blight must not.
To achieve excellence we must look at our delivery mechanisms. We must have the best structures in place for social housing for Northern Ireland. That means that we need to critically examine the current structures in the Housing Executive, the Housing Association movement and, of course, my own Department’s Housing Division, which has policy oversight for all of this.
The fundamental review of the Housing Executive concluded that to ‘do nothing’ is not an option. Rather than a negative statement this should be seen as a reflection that change is required to move social housing forward. The change in structures is required to ensure we can continue to deliver well maintained housing stock, improve the focus on strategy and ensure value for money for taxpayers in the future.
I have circulated a paper to all Executive Ministers which outlines my vision on future housing structures. I hope to announce a way forward on developing new structures shortly, and by March 2015, to have new structures in place to take forward the fundamental review of the Housing Executive.
Turning now to events at a UK level, everyone in the room will be aware of the welfare reform agenda which is progressing. We know that its implementation is unavoidable. I think that most of us will agree that the key principles behind this legislation are positive and we should recognise the real positives and opportunities that can be achieved as a result of some of these reforms.
First: we need a welfare system that protects the vulnerable; Second: a welfare system designed in such a way that it provides the maximum support and encouragement to get people involved in economic activity; Third: a system that is fair; and Fourth: a welfare system that promotes personal and social responsibility.
I welcome and recognise the need for many aspects of reform. However, there is a challenge to support the people most affected, particularly in the transition to Universal Credit.
There are a number of reforms intended to bring the spiralling cost of Housing Benefit expenditure under control. In Northern Ireland, Housing Benefit expenditure in respect of rent increased from £335.2million in 2004-05 to £490.7million in 2010-11. From the outset it was never the intention that Housing Benefit should guarantee that people on benefit would have unrestricted access to accommodation at any price.
I do however recognise that under-occupation in the social rented sector exists for all sorts of reasons, one key change to Housing Benefit affecting social sector tenants due to be introduced in April 2013 is the under-occupation measure.
Under current proposals any household deemed to be ‘under-occupying’ their home by one bedroom stands to lose 14% of their Housing Benefit and those ‘under-occupying’ by two or more bedrooms will lose 25%. It is estimated in excess of 30,000 tenants in the social housing sector will be impacted here.
The challenge is to ensure both that we do not add to the level of under-occupancy through inappropriate new allocations and also that we take appropriate steps to assist affected tenants. Tenants affected may make up the shortfall, move to a smaller home, incur arrears, or taking on a boarder/lodger. Landlords have a key role to play in ensuring that tenants understand the changes and what they will mean for them.
You will be aware that I have asked social landlords to consider whether there are opportunities to bring forward smaller sized accommodation, through new build schemes or re-configuration, which will increase their stock of smaller accommodation/one-bedroom units in those designated areas of need. My officials are working with the Housing Executive to develop a range of support measures to compliment those outlined in my Housing Strategy in which we can mitigate under occupation for those tenants affected. I ask all landlords to ensure as far as is possible that all options are explored to prevent social tenants from being evicted from their homes. I also intend to increase funding available for discretionary housing payments and change the legislation to allow such payments to be made to all social housing tenants.
The principle of parity means there is limited scope for Northern Ireland to vary from the GB reform agenda. However, in regard to the direct payment proposal under Universal Credit, following protracted negotiations, numerous visits to London and telephone calls, agreement was secured with Lord Freud, I recently confirmed that the housing costs element of Universal Credit will be paid automatically to the landlord rather than the claimant, with an opt out arrangement for those who choose to receive the full Universal Credit payment and in turn pay their landlord. In addition, the IT system functionality will be developed to enable the computer system, where necessary, to split the payment between the two parties in the household, and, again where necessary, to make two smaller payments per month rather than the single full monthly payment. This will help avoid rent arrears for many low income tenants and ensure that individuals remain safe in their tenancies while protecting social housing revenue. Let us not underestimate the value of these flexibilities – this is a real example of devolution delivering for Northern Ireland – If in doubt ask some of your colleagues in Scotland, Wales or England.
I am committed to tackling both under-occupancy and overcrowding through building more homes and providing help, advice and support to those seeking to downsize. It is crucially important that we continue to work with GB government officials to develop a programme of welfare reform that is tailored to the particular needs of Northern Ireland. Discussions are continuing with regard to the impact of Welfare Reform on Housing Benefit and I am pleased that Lord Freud has agreed to visit Northern Ireland later this month to support us in those discussions as they progress.
I have mentioned the challenges posed by the reforms to Housing Benefit. Our response to these challenges must be to ensure that everyone has access to an affordable home, be that in the private rented sector or the social housing sector, under a tenancy they can sustain. Many individuals will be impacted, each in specific ways; and I believe our response needs to be equally tailored. I am already working closely with the key housing providers to develop services in response both to those changes that have already taken place and in preparation for those to come. Dealing with the impacts requires careful consideration and I will be listening carefully to what people are saying, studying the findings of the research we have commissioned and seeking to put in place practical measures and support that will make a real difference to those impacted.
But that is the big picture. What have you, the Associations and NIFHA been doing in working with my Department? 2011/12 was another successful year for the movement as a whole in delivering more social housing for our clients, - prospective and existing tenants, in either providing better homes or providing new homes for those that did not previously have a place that they could call home. This is the first core principle in the Housing Strategy: -Citizen First – as homeowners, tenants and taxpayers, the strategy commits to delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.
But this does not come without Value for Money considerations and proper Governance of Housing Associations, who benefited from £143.1m last year in Housing Association Grant. I need hardly tell conference that this has come at a cost to seven Associations who are currently suspended from the programme because of problems and non compliance issues identified by the Department’s Inspection Teams. But suspension from the programme because of a critical inspection report does present real opportunities to some of the smaller associations experiencing, development or weak management to amalgamate or share services with another Association. A number have already gone down that route and I am very pleased to advise that SHAC Housing Association, who had previously experienced problems, has now become a member of the Oaklee Homes Group.
This is an emerging good news story following a less than favourable inspection carried out by my department in 2009. At that point in time the Board of SHAC deliberated on remedial action and was supported in a new environment via a Service Level Agreement with Oaklee Homes Group. In true partnership spirit and consulting my department throughout the process, the Association has been transformed to create a rejuvenated, fit for purpose, cost effective social housing provider.
To reach this point the Association went through a difficult process of renewal. However, the simplification of tasks and resources provided by Oaklee ensured significant savings and many positive results that helped to build the momentum and teamwork to develop and progress to effect the necessary organisational change.
SHAC continues to operate under its own name as part of the Oaklee Homes Group and will work tirelessly to provide social housing to those in housing need.
Other Associations can tell a similar good story and I pleased to be aware of a group of North Belfast associations who are currently considering amalgamation which will ultimately benefit tenants, who are not only tenants but these are also my constituents.
You will have heard me say before that we must have a leaner, more fit for purpose movement to take on the challenges that lie ahead. That means more robust structures and more innovation.
As I am out and about across the country, opening new schemes, it is obvious there is a wealth of talent out there. Tenants speak highly of what housing associations are doing and I see it for myself.
The challenge for all of us is to harness the abilities of the clearly more successful housing associations in support of those who just don’t have the breadth of expertise to compete as they did in the past.
I am encouraged by your progress on mergers and amalgamations. You have clearly identified that rationalization is the way forward. If housing supply is going to be increased, as it needs to be, we need growing organisations with the broadest possible range of expertise.
You will have seen in my new Housing Strategy that there is much for housing associations to do. There are a range of issues included, that have the potential to significantly grow the housing association sector. I would encourage you to embrace the new opportunities that are about to come your way.
One of the key themes in the Housing Strategy is about ensuring access to decent, affordable housing for all who require it. If we are going to come anywhere close to making that objective a reality, our aim has to be to find ways of making public subsidy work as hard as it can to achieve maximum benefit. The Strategy outlines a range of initiatives that involve changing the way in which we currently do things.
Where social housing is concerned, you already know that the Department over specifies the design of social house construction. The result is substantially increased costs that prevent you from developing alternative, more cost effective designs. Work has already started to bring social housing standards into line with those used for private housing. Result - more houses for our budget.
The same rationale applies in proposals to harmonise rents for future new builds. The aim is to increase levels of private finance and lead on to more housing supply.
On the wider front, from the £19m available from the Get Britain Building Fund to allow you to provide more shared ownership housing, through introduction of developer contributions when market circumstances improve, through long term leases with private sector developers and looking at how Housing Association Grant might be paid to a wider range of bodies - all are aimed at increasing supply to create new housing opportunities for our most vulnerable citizens.
We all know the real and pressing needs our society faces whether as citizens needing appropriate housing whether it be affordable housing, private rented or social - or our struggling construction industry with the many families relying on these jobs needing us to respond. Meeting targets isn’t something to congratulate ourselves on - we need to smash through them, striving to achieve more and more.
I as Minister with responsibility for Housing need your help in taking this significant body of work forward. In doing so I want to allow space for creativity and ingenuity, I want your ideas on how we make the system work better and in doing so I expect my department to respond and adapt when required. The days of doing things in a certain way, well just because that is the way we have always done them are over. I look to you as I look to myself and my department to up our game – much has certainly been achieved but there is much to do.
Let us leave this conference with a renewed vision and a determined mind to transform housing wherever we serve.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

More Britons want out of the EU

Stephen Collins, who is the political editor of the Irish Times, has an article in the newspaper today (10 November) about the European Union.
He notes that during the week 'an opinion poll showed that 49 per cent of Britons would vote to leave the EU, with 28 per cent saying that they would vote to stay.'  This shows the strength of opposition to the UK remaining in the European Union.
Collins also states that 'Public opinion in Britain has become increasingly hostile to the whole European project.  The pressure to exit from the EU appears inexorable, with the bulk of the British media fanning the flames of isolationism and forces in the City of London determined to do all they can to undermine the euro.'
This is indeed a fair reflection of public opinion in the United Kingdom.  However this is not about isolationism.  An exit from the European Union and a new relationship with Europe would also facilitate the development of better relationships with other trading partners outside the EU.
Much of the opposition to the EU is based on resentment about such as things as Britain putting more money into the EU than it gets back, the way that money is squandered and wasted by the EU, and the way that the EU seems to delight in interfering in the internal affairs of the United Kingdom by imposing unnecessary and unwanted legislation.  Indeed most unionists in Ulster will share that view.
My attention was also drawn to Stephen Collins' views on the impact this might have on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. He said that such 'political tremors have the capacity to widen the gulf between the two parts of the island and reinforce partition.'

Anti-social behaviour

The November 2012 issue of Total Politics had an article about the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales. 
Along with the article was a chart showing what people think should be the top priorities for the new PPCs and it was noticeable that the top priority was anti-social behaviour, which was identified by 70% of respondents.  That is certainly the top priority in my own constituency and it seems to be the top priority elsewhere.
The second priority on the chart was gun and knife crime, at just over 40%, with burglary, gangs, young offenders and alcohol-related crime following. 
I think the explanation is that for someone who is a victim of anti-social behaviour, it can become a regular occurence.  The victim suffers from it day after day, week after week, and gets worn down by it.
Over the past year I have been approached by a number of MLAs, especially from urban areas, about the problem of anti-socal behaviour and they have related how one anti-social individual or family can disrupt an entire street, even driving out settled families.  That is why anti-social behaviour is one of the issues addressed in the new Northern Ireland housing strategy.

A letter about abortion

There has been some correspondence in the New Statesman about abortion and the 'right to life' and this was part of a letter in the issue of 19-25 October.  The original article and the subsequent correspondence are especially interesting because the New Statesman is a centre-left publication.
.... an 'it's my body' argument is wholly inadequate for the simple reason that it completely ignores the reality of foetal development.  It's not (just) your body, certainly not at 12 weeks.
Gregor Woods, Sheffield
Those are striking words.  It's not (just) your body.  There is another little body there growing inside the womb of the mother and each of us is 'fearfully and wonderfully made'.  (Psalm 139:13,14)

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

American presidential election

This morning I attended a presidential election breakfast organised by the American consul general, Gregory Burton, in the E3 building of the Belfast Metropolitan College.
James Knox Polk
In his address the consul general explained that presidential elections in the United States of America take place on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.  Therefore the earliest possible date for an election is 2 November and the latest possible date in 8 November.
A uniform date for presidential elections was instituted by the US Congress in 1845 and the reasons for it were set out in the records of the Congressional debate on the bill in December 1844.
At that time America was largely a rural and agrarian society and farmers often needed a full day to travel by horse-drawn vehicles to the county seat to vote.  Tuesday was chosen as the election day because it did not interfere with the Christian Sabbath or with the market day, which was often on a Wednesday.  November was chosen because it avoided sowing time and harvest time and also avoided the worst of the winter weather.
Initially the bill set the national day for choosing presidential electors as 'the first Tuesday in November', in years divisible by four, such as 2012.  However it was amended to 'the first Tuesday after the first Monday'.  This prevented election day falling on the first day of November, All Saints Day, which was a holy day for Roman Catholics, and it avoided the day when most merchants did their books for the preceding month.  It was also pointed out that in some years the period between the first Tuesday in November and the first Wenesday in December, when the electors met in their state capitals to vote, would be more than 34 days, in violation of the existing electoral college law.  For these reasons they went for 'the first Tuesday after the first Monday', a date scheme already used in the state of New York.
This morning the new consul general also reminded us that the president at that time was President James Knox Polk (1795-1849), the 11th president of the United States.  The consul general then added that Polk's ancestors had emigrated from Lough Foyle and that he was one of a number of American presidents whose ancestors had emigrated from Ulster. 
I was pleased that the new consul general has an awaresness of the role of the Ulster-Scots in the making of modern America and pleased that he took the time to mention it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Skift and scow - mair Ulster-Scotch wurds

Diarmaid O Muirithe has brought us some more Ulster-Scots words in his Irish Times column when a reader from Drumbracken in county Monaghan brought him the word skift.  O Muirithe said that he hadn't come across the word  in the South but but the reader explained that it meant 'a light, passing shower'.
According to O Muirithe, 'it is a Scots word .. meaning to rain or snow slightly. ...  The word came to Drumbracken from Scotland, and there is no doubt that the Scots borrowed the word from Scandinavia. 
He also noted 'a word still used in south Donegal, and first recorded by Simmons in his 1890 glossary of the English of that region.   The word is scow is glossed by Simmons as 'a broad flat-bottomed boat of shallow draught' and it also appears in W H Patterson's glossry of Antrim words (1892) as 'Scow; a large flat barge, used to receive the mud raised by a dredging machine.  Jamieson's dictionary of Scots defined scow as 'a lighter employed in rivers and canals' and it also recorded the meaning 'a small boat made of willows and covered with skins'.
Like many Ulster folk I was familiar with the word skift, but this was my first introduction to the word scow. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Public Art

Public art can attract strong and divergent opinions, not all of it positive. Indeed some people regard it all as a waste of money.
That is a view I don't share. There is good public art and there is bad public art but it wrong to write off all public art. Good art can enhance and enrich our physical environment

Therefore it is good to know that two public art pieces in Northern Ireland have been shortlisted for a prestigious United Kingdom public art honour. They are among eight pieces selected by the judges of the Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.

Rise was completed in September 2011 and is taller than the Albert Memorial. It has already won several awards and been shortlisted for many more. The sculpture is visible to the thousands of people who use the MI and the Westlink but it is also visible from much further afield. As I come down the Hightown Road into Belfast it stands out very clearly marking the start of the motorway.
Meanwhile To the People of the Sea is installed on the East Strand at Portrush in February 2011. The bronze and steel sculpture depicts the three sails of a traditional Drontheim boat above the crests of breaking waves and reflects the maritime tradition of the north coast of Ulster.

The Marsh Award has been running for six years and so far it has never been won by a piece of art in Northern Ireland.

More BBC bias

The following article appeared in the NewsLetter on 15 September:
BBC 'defaulting on religion' claim
A leading BBC broadcaster claimed this week that the Corporation is dominated by a 'liberal secular elite' whose 'default position' is to assume that Christians are 'lunatics'.
Roger Bolton, a former presenter of BBC Sunday programme, warned of a 'suicidal' ignorance about religion.  He warned that those in charge of broadcasting suffered from a 'suicidal' ignorace about religion and said the Corporation was failing to meet its obligations as a public service broadcaster to improve understanding of religion.
Mr Bolton, who presents Radio 4's Feedback programme in which listeners air their views, said there was a growing view among the audience that Christians in particular were being treated unfairly in comparison with other faiths. 
He said it appeared to be impossible to make jokes about followers of other faiths while Christians were viewed as fair game.
Mr Bolton, speaking at a debate organised by the BBC's religion and ethics unit, called for television news reporters to receive training to teach them about faith.  He said a lack of basic understanding about religion meant faiths like  were being oversimplifed, leading to dangerous levels of ignorance.
Roger Bolton makes an important point about the lack of knowledge in the BBC but I would suggest there is more than mere ignorance.  There is actually a cosy liberal consensus which is antagonistic to Christianity and other faiths.
Bolton joined the BBC in 1967 and has worked on some of television's best known factual programmes, such as Panorama, as well as presenting Sunday between 1998 and 2010.  With more than thirty years experience in broadcasting, his comments are worth noting and they cannot be easily dismissed.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Tenancy Deposit Schemes (2)

After my earlier post on Tenancy Deposit Schemes I received a number of questions and hence this follow-up.
The private rented sector in Northern Ireland accounts for over 17% of our total housing stock and most landlords now demand a deposit at the start of a tenancy.
The return of deposits has been a long running and constant concern.  Average deposits are around £300 to £500 and research carried out in 2009 by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive showed that 17% of tenants did not get any of their deposit back and 14% of tenants got part of their deposit back.  Many tenants felt that the landlord was not justified in retaining any of the deposit.
TheTenancy Deposit Schemes will be self funding, at no cost to the department or the public purse.  All costs such as administration will be covered by the interest which the schemes will earn through the investment of the deposits/premiums into a designated account.
Before these schemes are implemented the department will undertake widespread publicity to make sure both tenants and landlords are made fully aware.

Boost for home ownership

Co-Ownership Housing has secured £50 million private finance investment over the next three years.  Barclay's Bank and Bank of Ireland have both announced a commitment to provide £25 million each to help people take the first step on the property ladder.
The provision of good quality, affordable housing is a key priority for the Executive.  Through the Co-Ownership scheme, government and the private sector are working together to facilitiate a better future for those who want a stepped approach into home ownership.
Last year, along with my colleague Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, I was able to announce £100 million funding for Co-Ownership until 2014/15.  Together with this private investment, some 2,500 homes will be able to be purchased, mainly by first-time buyers, over the next four-year period. 
Co-Ownership Housing is a registered housing association and Northern Ireland's regional body for shared ownership, operating since 1978.  The Co-Ownership scheme is a low cost route into home ownership aimed at people who could not otherwise afford to buy a home.  Purchasers buy a share in their property of choice (from 50% up to 90% initially).  Every case is assessed individually and all properties are subject to valuation before purchase.

I would encourage anyone who thinks that they might benefit from the scheme to consider availing of this new funding package.  Co-Ownership offers a free, confidential informationm service and you can contact them on freephone 0800 333644 or

Friday, 2 November 2012

Biased Broadcasting Corporation?

The BBC in Northern Ireland is running a trailer for a documentary on Sinn Fein councillor Niall O Donnghaile, who was  Lord Mayor of Belfast last year.  The programme is to be broadcast on Monday evening.
This is not the first BBC documentary on a Lord Mayor.  There was also a documentary on Alex Maskey, who was Lord Mayor in 2002. 
In between there were eight other Lord Mayors and they were drawn from all the larger political parties, including DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance, as well as Sinn Fein, but the BBC has decided that the only party whose Lord Mayors merit a BBC documentary is Sinn Fein.
The BBC is a public service broadcaster and is supposed to be fair, balanced and impartial but this preferential treatment for Sinn Fein falls far short of those standards.
Some time ago I raised this issue with the Northern Ireland controller of the BBC, at a meeting in Broadcasting House in Belfast, but have yet to hear what the BBC proposes to do to rectify this situation. 
There is an onus on the BBC to acknowledge that it was wrong to give preferential treatment to Sinn Fein, to determine how this happened, to ensure that it does not happen again and to take action to redress this imbalance.

Landlords and Welfare Reform

I am encouraged by the support I have received after negotiating the three key flexibilities in wefare reform, one of which was the availability of direct payment of housing benefit to landlords.  I received the following letter from the chairman of the Landlords' Association for Northern Ireland:

Dear Minister McCausland
We congratulate you on your succesful negotiations with Lord Freud which has resulted in tailoring the way in which Universal Credit will be paid in northern Ireland.
As you are aware, of particular concern to us was the proposal to end the provision of direct payment of housing allowance to landlords: a change which we firmly believe would have led to a complete collapse of the rental market to social tenants, including the NI Housing Executive, Housing Associations and hostels, in addition to the private rented sector.
Our members greatly appreciate the effort you have made to make the changes possible; it is no small achievement.

Spoof blog

According to Newton Emerson in the Irish News (27 October):
A spoof of DUP minister Nelson McCausland's blog has suddenly vanished from the internet, along with the associated Twitter account.  Whoever put the frighteners on its author clearly did a very thorough job.  Meanwhile, Mr McCausland's blog remains online.  Welcome to our digital tomorrow.
I am grateful to Newton for that information because I didn't even know there was a spoof blog and have never seen it.  So much for the wonders of the digital world.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Andrea Bocelli and abortion

Gail Henderson told this story in her column in the Sunday Life (21 October):
I recently stumbled across a You Tube clip showing classical singer Andrea Bocelli at his piano telling a story about a young pregnant woman who was being treated in hospital for acute appendicitis.
After her treatment she was advised by doctors to abort her baby as it may have a disability.
The brave young woman ignored their advice and had a baby boy.
Then he smiles before revealing that the woman was his mother and he was the child.
Now that's the way to get people thinking.

And I agree with that. There's nothing more powerful than a personal story, in effect a testimony, and Bocelli's story is indeed a powerful one. If that young woman had agreed to an abortion the world would have been denied the amazing talent of this wonderful singer and all the pleasure that comes from his singing.

Murder of David Black

The murder of prison officer David Black by dissident Irish republicans was an evil deed, carried out by evil men.

David was a fine prisoner officer, who had served through the Troubles, but he was more than that, he was also a son a husband and a father.  His elderly parents have lost a son, his wife Yvonne has lost her husband, and his children Kyle and Kyra, have lost their father.

David was also an Orangeman and a member of Montober LOL 661 for approximately thirty years.  His death brings to 337 the number of Orangemen who have been murdered by terrorists since 1969.

The murder of David Black was an evil deed but every murder is wrong.  It is wrong when a prison officer is murdered today and it was equally wrong when other prison officers were murdered in the course of the Troubles.  David was the thirtieth prison worker to be killed since 1974 and every one of those murders was just as evil.

It is imperative that the perpetrators of this crime are brought to justice.  As a society we must show the terrorists that they will not succeed and we must strive to get them off the streets before they are able to carry out further attacks.

I welcome the fact that there has been such widespread revulsion at this killing and I long for the day when those who try to distinguish between recent dissident murders and earlier terrorist murders come to recognise that there is no distinction.

Eileen Evason on welfare reform

I deal with a range of issues in my department, including housing, neighbourhood renewal, town centre regeneration and the voluntary and community sector, and I am taking forward initiatives in all these areas but undoubtedly welfare reform has been right up there at the top of my work programme.  That has been the case for some time and will remain so well into next year.  The impact of wefare reform will be felt by people right across Northern Ireland and we in the Assembly must do all that we can to shape welfare reform in a way that will best take account of the particular circumstances of the province.
We are bound by the broad principle of parity - that people in Northern Ireland are entitled to the same benfits as people in the rest of the United Kingdom - and that is something that I will return to on another occasion, but there is some room for flexibility and right from the start I identified three key flexibilities that I wanted - the possibility of direct payment of housing benefit to landlords, the possibility of split payments as opposed to single household payments and the possibility of fortnightly as opposed to monthly payments.
All the main political parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are represented on the Executive sub-committee on welfare reform and all were agreed that these were key issues.  Moreover all of the stakeholder groups said the same thing.
However those flexibilities require that they be incorporated into the IT system what will deliver the new benefit system and that IT system is being developed by the Department forWork and Pensions at Westminster (DWP).  I have therefore devoted a lot of time and energy to negotiating with DWP and in particular with Ian Duncan Smith MP and Lord Freud, to secure those flexibilities.  There have been many meetings and conversations as well as correspondence and officials in my department have also been in regular contact, indeed almost daily contact, with officials in DWP.
It has taken a lot of my time and indeed for several weeks there I did not post anything on this blog, simply because I didn't have the time.
However as a result of those negotiations I was able to secure the flexibilities that I wanted and that has been good news for Northern Ireland.
When I announced it to the Assembly I was congratulated by all the political parties, probably the first time that has happened!  There was also a warm welcome from stakeholders and interest groups.  I was interested in particular to see what some of the independent experts in the field have said and looking through press cuttings and radio and television transcripts I picked out the interview that Linda McAuley had with Professor Eileen Evason on the Radio Ulster consumer programme On Your Behalf (27 October).  Here is what Eileen said about these flexibilities.
Isn't this amazing.  I so rarely get the chance to bring good news of any kind.  If we go back to last month when I was on the programme, we were talking about Universal Credit and this is the new means tested benefit that will replace things like Working Tax Credit, Child Benefit Tax Credit, Housing Benefit and so on.  And what was concerning was the provisions that had gone through the Westminster Parliament were vary unsatisfactory in various ways.  ... People were very concerned about not importing these provisions into Northern Ireland and this week it was announced in fact that London has agreed that with Northern Ireland we can do things differently.  It will be possible for example for us to have bi-monthly payments, it will be possible to have split payments and issues will be addressed in relation to rents and good news that I noted was that our system will start later than the British one.  In Britain they intend to roll this out from October 2013.  We will start in April 2014, a very important time lag because if this new system, Universal Credit, sort of crashes and burns, so to speak, on take off, at least it won't affect people in Northern Ireland.  So I think that is good news and I should say credit to the Minister for working this out.
As well as welcoming the three flexibilities she also welcomed that important fact that welfare reform will start her later than in Great Britain.  We will not be breaking parity but we will be coming in at the end of the roll out and that too is good news because by that time any problems with the IT system should have been resolved.

This success was the result of hard work over a period of time and I am glad hat we have achieved that success but there is still more to do and one thing is certain.  Welfare reform will remain right at the top of my agenda.