AEJ THERESA VILLIERS

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

This is the text of the speech which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers MP delivered at a lunch in Belfast I organised last Friday on behalf of the Association of European Journalists (Irish Section). Most of the AEJ members are based in Dublin.   

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

“It is a great pleasure to speak to the Association of European Journalists here in Belfast this afternoon and I am grateful to Eileen Dunne, Martin Allioth and Michael Fisher for their kind invitation to do so. In my remarks today I’d like to set out the government’s position in relation to the so-called ‘On the Runs’. And I’d like to highlight some of the challenges facing both the government and the executive as we work together to build a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Victims

As regards ‘on the runs’, I’d like to start by reiterating just how much the government appreciates the deep sense of anger felt about what has happened. For many people the judgement in the Downey case accompanied as it was by details of the scheme put in place by the last government to deal with on the runs has been a cause of considerable distress and grave concern. I recognise that the people who must be feeling that distress and concern at its most intense levels are the families of those murdered in the appalling terrorist atrocity in Hyde Park over 30 years ago who hoped that justice might at long last be done.

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

But this issue affects victims of terrorism more widely people, like the relatives of the Kingsmill massacre who I met last week – people who have never seen the killers of their loved ones brought to justice. Nobody who meets the victims of terrorism here in Northern Ireland can fail to be deeply moved by the pain and suffering that many of them still feel long after the events that caused their terrible loss and bereavement.

And I am very, very sorry that what’s happened in recent days will have revived painful memories for many victims, putting them through the agony of loss all over again. This controversy is a reminder to us all that in any process for dealing with the past, it is the interests of victims that must come first.

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

On the Runs

The arrangements for dealing with OTRs were put in place by the previous government beginning in 2000 and then accelerated after the failure of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2006.

Essentially the process involved Sinn Fein submitting a list of individuals living outside the United Kingdom who believed that if they returned here to Northern Ireland or any other part of the UK that they might be wanted by the police in connection with terrorist offences committed before the 1998 Belfast Agreement. These names were then checked by the police and in some cases by the Public Prosecution Service.

If that checking process concluded that the lack of evidence available at the time meant that there was no realistic prospect of prosecution, then the individuals concerned were informed that they were no longer wanted by police in a letter signed by a Northern Ireland Office official. Yet the recipients of these letters were also made aware that should sufficient evidence subsequently emerge connecting them with terrorist offences, then they would still be liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way.

AEJ Chair Martin Alioth and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

AEJ Chair Martin Alioth and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

Support for the rule of law

So I want to be very clear. No one holding one of these letters should be in any doubt. They are not “get out of jail free cards”.

They will not protect you from arrest or from prosecution and if the police can gather sufficient evidence, you will be subject to all the due processes of law, just like anybody else. The letters do not amount to any immunity, exemption or amnesty something that could only ever be granted by legislation passed by Parliament.

They were statements of fact at the time regarding an individual’s status in connection with the police and prosecuting authorities. It was on that basis that when the current government took office and was made aware of these arrangements that we allowed the list of names submitted to our predecessors  – by that stage coming towards its end  – to continue to be checked.

In total, of the 200 or so cases considered under the scheme, 38 have been looked at since May 2010 and of these 12 received letters saying they were no longer wanted. No letters have been issued by the NIO since December 2012 and as far as this government is concerned, the scheme is over. If at any time we had been presented with a scheme that amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty from prosecution implied or otherwise we would have stopped it immediately.

This government does not support, and has never supported, immunities, exemptions or amnesties from prosecution. That is we vigorously opposed the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2005, that would have introduced what amounted to an amnesty and which was abandoned in the face of widespread condemnation. We believe in the application of the rule of law and due process. And that applies across the board to anyone,  including those who are in possession of a letter under the OTR scheme.

So for the avoidance of any doubt, it needs to be clearly understood by all recipients that no letters which have been issued can be relied on to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later. And in the case of Mr Downey, it was the fact that the letter he was sent was factually incorrect and misleading that led the judge to rule that an abuse of process had occurred. John Downey should never have been sent a letter saying he wasn’t wanted by the police because at all times he was wanted by the Metropolitan police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

Independent review

The Prime Minister reacted swiftly to the concerns about the scheme expressed by the First Minister, the Justice Minister and the broader public by announcing a judge-led investigation of the scheme. Its terms of reference require the inquiry to provide a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme establish whether other mistakes were made and to make recommendations.

This will be a meaningful, exacting and rigorous process to get to the truth of what happened to provide the answers for which the public are calling, and do everything possible to remove any impediments to the future operation of justice, perceived or real. I expect the judge’s report to be provided to me by the end of May. Until that time there are limits on what I can say because I do not wish to cut across the judge’s work or pre-empt his or her conclusions.

But I do want to say this. No more side deals.

As you will all here appreciate, the collapse of the Downey case and the revelations on OTRs that came with it occurred at a time when the parties in the Northern Ireland executive were discussing possible ways forward on flags, parading and the past. Both the UK and the Irish governments were very supportive of those efforts and hopeful that progress could be made.

Of course I understand that events of the past few days have caused some to question whether the discussions on the so-called Haass issues have a future. But the reality is that whatever the conclusions of the inquiries into the OTR scheme, the issues under consideration in those leaders’ meetings will still need to be dealt with.

The imperative to make progress on flags and parading remain every bit as strong as it was when the Northern Ireland Executive began this process last year. And on the past, one of the lessons of the last 10 days must surely be that more than ever we need an agreed approach and structures that can operate in a balanced and transparent way that commands public confidence.

We need to see an end the era of secret side deals and evasive parliamentary answers that too often characterised the handling of the political process here and undermined confidence in it. I regret the fact that this government did not discuss the OTR scheme with ministers in the executive, particularly when we concluded in August 2012 that anyone wanting to raise new cases should direct them to the devolved authorities. And I have made that clear both to the First Minister and the Justice Minister.

I believe that the way in which the previous government withheld the scheme from Northern Ireland’s politicians, from parliament and from the public in the aftermath of the failure of the legislation in 2005 was wrong and I welcome the apology Labour gave for that earlier this week.

Politics of delivery 

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

NI Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

Making progress on flags, parading and the past could free up the space for politicians to focus more on other issues that are critical to our future, such as rebalancing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a genuinely shared future. Because let’s face it, the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not wake up on a Monday morning worrying about the past, flags or parades.

While these are important matters, the priorities for most people are issues like jobs, pensions, transport, schools and hospitals and that’s where they expect their politicians to focus their energies. Today we are over half way through the second term of the second Assembly since devolution was restored in May 2007. That’s the longest period of unbroken devolved government in Northern Ireland since the closure of the Stormont Parliament in 1972. And that’s not bad when one considers the number of commentators who predicted that a coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Fein couldn’t last six months let alone more than six years.

And the executive here can cite a number of real achievements, not the least of which is its continued success in bringing foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland. This has helped make Belfast the second most popular city in the UK for FDI.

The First and deputy First Minister have also published Northern Ireland’s first ever locally agreed community relations strategy, Together: Building a United Community. But for all that the executive has proven stable and delivered in a number of areas, I believe that there is a clear public perception out there that more still needs to be done. That comes across in successive opinion polls but also in many conversations I’ve had with business people, journalists and others across Northern Ireland.

Of course I understand that a mandatory coalition that embraces 5 parties with fundamentally divergent views on constitutional, economic and social issues was never going to be easy to operate. Yet one of the central features of the 1998 settlement, as amended at St Andrews in 2006, was precisely to bring together politicians from different traditions and show that they could deliver for the good of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. And it’s crucial that we make it work. Of course the UK government as guarantor of the devolution settlement under strand one of the Belfast Agreement can encourage and help.

AEJ President Eileen Dunne and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

AEJ President Eileen Dunne and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

Making difficult choices

But Northern Ireland’s politicians also need to move beyond the issues that have dominated political debate here and recognise that difficult choices are often needed in order to deliver the services the public want and expect. So we have to press ahead with implementing the economic pact we agreed jointly last summer just before the G8.

For the government that means delivering on issues like start-up loans, access to finance and the necessary preparatory work needed to enable a decision to be made in the autumn on whether to devolve corporation tax powers. But the executive too needs to move forward on economic reform such as tackling business red tape, streamlining planning, investing in infrastructure and reforming the public sector.

We want Northern Ireland to be an even more attractive place to do business and to be able to take full advantage of the recovery that is underway as a result of our long term economic plan. And that requires difficult choices on reforming welfare so that Northern Ireland has a system that rewards work, tackles the causes of dependency, and continues to protect those in genuine need while being fair to taxpayers whose money funds the system. And difficult choices are also needed if people in Northern Ireland are to be given the same protection from organised crime as people in Great Britain now have through the work of the National Crime Agency.

In this long running debate I believe that protecting the public from serious organised crime should now be the overriding priority and that the time has therefore come for executive to press ahead on the NCA, so that it is allowed to work properly in Northern Ireland for the good of everyone who lives here.

AEJ Chair Martin Alioth and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP  Photo: © Michael Fisher

AEJ Chair Martin Alioth and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers MP Photo: © Michael Fisher

The role of UK government in today’s Northern Ireland 

I want to conclude with a word about the UK government’s role here. Of course devolution has significantly altered that role.

We are no longer responsible for the day to day delivery of public services which is now rightly the responsibility of the executive. But we do remain fully engaged. That’s why despite the deficit we have responded positively to requests from the Chief Constable for significant additional funding for the PSNI in order to combat terrorism and help keep people here safe and secure. It’s why we agreed the economic pact last May enabling us to work more closely with the executive here than any other devolved administration in the rest of the UK.

It’s why we brought the G8 Summit of world leaders here so that the eyes of the world could focus on Northern Ireland as a great place to visit and invest. It’s why we responded swiftly to the request to devolve long haul air passenger duty to help save Northern Ireland’s vital direct transatlantic link. It’s why we fulfilled our pledge to bring about a fair solution for those investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society who were unable to access their money.

It’s why we’ve safeguarded Northern Ireland’s Assisted Area Status a key priority for the executive and a status which significantly enhances Northern Ireland’s ability attract jobs and investment. It’s why we introduced tax relief for high end film and TV production that was crucial to securing a fourth series of Game of Thrones for the Paint Hall studios in Belfast. And it’s why we’ve supported the executive by maintaining public spending here at 2% per head higher than the UK average. And all of this is underpinned by a government that is not neutral about Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.

Of course, as the agreements make clear, the consent principle is paramount and the future of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined by the people in Northern Ireland. But while the UK government might not have a vote, we do have a voice. And that voice is resoundingly for the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland playing a full and active role within it.

A United Kingdom in which we are all stronger and better together. And in carrying out our responsibilities we are mindful at all times of our duty to work on behalf of the whole community here, in helping to build a stronger economy and a shared future, and a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland for everyone.

And that’s a commitment that we’ll continue to deliver with determination and with enthusiasm. Thank you.

SECRETARY OF STATE

Theresa Villers MP  Photo: Conservative Party

Theresa Villers MP Photo: Conservative Party

This is the text of the speech which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers MP is due to deliver at a lunch in Belfast I have organised on behalf of the Association of European Journalists (Irish Section). Most of the AEJ members are based in Dublin. The speech was released in advance last night by the Northern Ireland Office:

“In my remarks today I’d like to set out the Government’s position in relation to the so-called ‘On the Runs’. And I’d like to highlight some of the challenges facing both the Government and the Executive as we work together to build a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Victims

As regards ‘On the Runs’, I’d like to start by reiterating just how much the Government appreciates the deep sense of anger felt about what has happened. For many people the judgement in the Downey case … accompanied as it was by details of the scheme put in place by the last government to deal with On the Runs … has been a cause of considerable distress and grave concern. I recognise that the people who must be feeling that distress and concern at its most intense levels are the families of those murdered in the appalling terrorist atrocity in Hyde Park over 30 years ago … who hoped that justice might at long last be done.

But this issue affects victims of terrorism more widely … people like the relatives of the Kingsmill massacre who I met last week … people who have never seen the killers of their loved ones brought to justice. Nobody who meets the victims of terrorism here in Northern Ireland can fail to be deeply moved by the pain and suffering that many of them still feel long after the events that caused their terrible loss and bereavement.

And I am very, very sorry that what’s happened in recent days will have revived painful memories for many victims, putting them through the agony of loss all over again. This controversy is a reminder to us all that in any process for dealing with the past, it is the interests of victims that must come first.

On the Runs

The arrangements for dealing with OTRs were put in place by the previous government … beginning in 2000 and then accelerated after the failure of the Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2006. Essentially the process involved Sinn Fein submitting a list of individuals living outside the United Kingdom who believed that if they returned here to Northern Ireland … or any other part of the UK … that they might be wanted by the police in connection with terrorist offences committed before the 1998 Belfast Agreement. These names were then checked by the police and in some cases by the Public Prosecution Service.

If that checking process concluded that the lack of evidence available at the time meant that there was no realistic prospect of prosecution the individuals concerned were informed of that they were no longer wanted by police in a letter signed by a Northern Ireland Office official. Yet the recipients of these letters were also made aware that should sufficient evidence subsequently emerge connecting them with terrorist offences … then they would still be liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way.

Support for the rule of law

So I want to be very clear. No one holding one of these letters should be in any doubt.

They are not “get out of jail free cards”.

They will not protect you from arrest or from prosecution and if the police can gather sufficient evidence, you will be subject to all the due processes of law, just like anybody else. The letters do not amount to any immunity, exemption or amnesty … something that could only ever be granted by legislation passed by Parliament.

They were statements of fact at the time regarding an individual’s status in connection with the police and prosecuting authorities. It was on that basis that when the current Government took office and was made aware of these arrangements … that we allowed the list of names submitted to our predecessors … by that stage coming towards its end … to continue to be checked. In total of the 200 or so cases considered under the scheme 38 have been looked at since May 2010 … and of these 12 received letters saying they were no longer wanted.

No letters have been issued by the NIO since December 2012 … and as far as this Government is concerned, the scheme is over.

If at any time we had been presented with a scheme that amounted to immunity, exemption or amnesty from prosecution … implied or otherwise … we would have stopped it immediately. My party and this Government do not support, and have never supported, immunities, exemptions or amnesties from prosecution.

That is why the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and many others vigorously opposed Peter Hain’s Northern Ireland Offences Bill in 2005 that would have introduced what amounted to an amnesty and which was abandoned in the face of widespread condemnation. We believe in the application of the rule of law and due process … and that applies across the board to anyone … including those who are in possession of a letter under the OTR scheme.

So for the avoidance of any doubt … it needs to be clearly understood by all recipients that no letters which have been issued can be relied on to avoid questioning or prosecution for offences where information or evidence becomes available now or later. And in the case of Mr Downey it was the fact that the letter he was sent was factually incorrect and misleading that led the judge to rule that an abuse of process had occurred. John Downey should never have been sent a letter saying he wasn’t wanted by the police because at all times he was wanted by the Metropolitan police in relation to the Hyde Park bombing.

Independent review

The Prime Minister reacted swiftly to the concerns about the scheme expressed by the First Minister, the Justice Minister … and the broader public … by announcing a judge-led investigation of the scheme. Its terms of reference require the inquiry to provide a full public account of the operation and extent of the scheme … establish whether other mistakes were made … and to make recommendations.

This will be a meaningful, exacting and rigorous process to get to the truth of what happened … to provide the answers for which the public are calling … and do everything possible to remove any impediments to the future operation of justice, perceived or real. I expect the judge’s report to be provided to me by the end of May. Until that time there are limits on what I can say because I do not wish to cut across the judge’s work or pre-empt his or her conclusions.

But I do want to say this.  No more side deals.  As you will all here appreciate, the collapse of the Downey case … and the revelations on OTRs that came with it … occurred at a time when the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive were discussing possible ways forward on flags, parading and the past. Both the UK and the Irish Governments were very supportive of those efforts … and hopeful that progress could be made.

Of course I understand that events of the past few days have caused some to question whether the discussions on the so-called Haass issues have a future. But the reality is that whatever the conclusions of the inquiries into the OTR scheme, the issues under consideration in those leaders’ meetings will still need to be dealt with.

The imperative to make progress on flags and parading remain every bit as strong as it was when the Northern Ireland Executive began this process last year.  And on the past, one of the lessons of the last 10 days must surely be that more than ever we need an agreed approach and structures that can operate in a balanced and transparent way that commands public confidence. We need to see an end the era of secret side deals and evasive parliamentary answers that too often characterised the previous government’s handling of the political process here … and undermined confidence in it.

I regret the fact that this Government did not discuss the OTR scheme with ministers in the Executive … particularly when we concluded in August 2012 that anyone wanting to raise new cases should direct them to the devolved authorities … and I have made that clear both to the First Minister and the Justice Minister.

I believe that the way in which Labour withheld the scheme from Northern Ireland’s politicians, from parliament and from the public in the aftermath of the failure of the legislation in 2005 was wrong … and I welcome the apology Labour gave for that earlier this week.

Politics of delivery

Making progress on flags, parading and the past could free up the space for politicians to focus more on other issues that are critical to our future … such as rebalancing the economy, reforming the public sector and building a genuinely shared future…. because let’s face it … the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not wake up on a Monday morning worrying about the past, flags or parades. While these are important matters, the priorities for most people are issues like jobs, pensions, transport, schools and hospitals … and that’s where they expect their politicians to focus their energies.

Today we are over half way through the second term of the second Assembly since devolution was restored in May 2007. That’s the longest period of unbroken devolved government in Northern Ireland since the closure of the Stormont Parliament in 1972. And that’s not bad when one considers the number of commentators who predicted that a Coalition led by the DUP and Sinn Fein couldn’t last six months … let alone more than six years.

And the Executive here can cite a number of real achievements … not the least of which is its continued success in bringing foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland.  This has helped make Belfast the second most popular city in the UK for FDI.

The First and deputy First Minister have also published Northern Ireland’s first ever locally agreed community relations strategy … Together: Building a United Community.  But for all that the Executive has proven stable and delivered in a number of areas … I believe that there is a clear public perception out there that more still needs to be done. That comes across in successive opinion polls … but also in many conversations I’ve had with businesspeople, journalists and others across Northern Ireland.

Of course I understand that a mandatory coalition … that embraces five parties with fundamentally divergent views on constitutional, economic and social issues … was never going to be easy to operate. Yet one of the central features of the 1998 settlement … as amended at St Andrews in 2006 … was precisely to bring together politicians from different traditions and show that they could deliver for the good of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. And it’s crucial that we make it work.

Of course the UK Government … as guarantor of the devolution settlement under strand one of the Belfast Agreement … can encourage and help.

Making difficult choices

But Northern Ireland’s politicians also need to move beyond the issues that have dominated political debate here and recognise that difficult choices are often needed in order to deliver the services the public want and expect. So we have to press ahead with implementing the economic pact we agreed jointly last summer just before the G8.

For the Government that means delivering on issues like start up loans, access to finance and the necessary preparatory work needed to enable a decision to be made in the autumn on whether to devolve corporation tax powers. But the Executive too needs to move forward on economic reform such as tackling business red tape, streamlining planning, investing in infrastructure and reforming the public sector.

We want Northern Ireland to be an even more attractive place to do business … and to be able to take full advantage of the recovery that is underway as a result of our long term economic plan. And that requires difficult choices on reforming welfare so that Northern Ireland has a system that rewards work, tackles the causes of dependency, and continues to protect those in genuine need … while being fair to taxpayers whose money funds the system.

And difficult choices are also needed if people in Northern Ireland are to be given the same protection from organised crime as people in Great Britain now have through the work of the National Crime Agency. In this long running debate I believe that protecting the public from serious organised crime should now be the overriding priority … and that the time has therefore come for Executive to press ahead on the NCA so that it is allowed to work properly in Northern Ireland for the good of everyone who lives here.

Conclusion – role of UK Government in today’s Northern Ireland

I want to conclude with a word about the UK Government’s role here. Of course devolution has significantly altered that role.  We are no longer responsible for the day to day delivery of public services … which is now rightly the responsibility of the Executive. But we do remain fully engaged.

That’s why … despite the deficit … we have responded positively to requests from the Chief Constable for significant additional funding for the PSNI in order to combat terrorism and help keep people here safe and secure. It’s why we agreed the economic pact last May enabling us to work more closely with the Executive here than any other devolved administration in the rest of the UK. It’s why we brought the G8 Summit of world leaders here … so that the eyes of the world could focus on Northern Ireland as a great place to visit and invest. It’s why we responded swiftly to the request to devolve long haul air passenger duty to help save Northern Ireland’s vital direct transatlantic link.

It’s why we fulfilled our pledge to bring about a fair solution for those investors in the Presbyterian Mutual Society who were unable to access their money and were so cruelly abandoned by the previous government. It’s why we’ve safeguarded Northern Ireland’s Assisted Area Status … a key priority for the Executive and a status which significantly enhances Northern Ireland’s ability attract jobs and investment.

It’s why we introduced tax relief for high end film and TV production that was crucial to securing a fourth series of Game of Thrones for the Paint Hall studios in Belfast. And it’s why we’ve supported the Executive by maintaining public spending here at 20 per cent per head higher than the UK average.

And all of this is underpinned by a Government that, unlike its predecessor, is not neutral about Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. Of course … as the agreements make clear … the consent principle is paramount and the future of Northern Ireland will only ever be determined by the people in Northern Ireland. But while the UK Government might not have a vote … we do have a voice. And that voice is resoundingly for the United Kingdom … with Northern Ireland playing a full and active role within it … a United Kingdom in which we are all stronger and better together.

And in carrying out our responsibilities we are mindful at all times of our duty to work on behalf of the whole community here … in helping to build a stronger economy and a shared future … and a peaceful, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland for everyone … And that’s a commitment that we’ll continue to deliver with determination and with enthusiasm”.

AEJ background:  The AEJ is an independent, self-funding association for journalists, writers and specialists in European affairs. We also organise other seminars and special events from time to time. 

The AEJ offers journalists in Ireland the chance to be part of a professional and social network of media professionals and experts on European issues. Membership can provide valuable mutual support for individual journalists.   

We are not tied to any institutional or political group but are recognised by the Council of Europe, the OSCE and UNESCO. Our goals are to advance knowledge and debate on European affairs and to uphold media freedom.    

The AEJ Irish Section is part of a Europe-wide network of some 20 national sections across Europe, with more than 1000 members in all. Internationally, the AEJ has an active programme of professional activities and the annual AEJ Congress is a forum for debate on matters of common concern to journalists across the continent.

DEREK RYAN

Derek Ryan & Michael Fisher at Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan

Derek Ryan & Michael Fisher at Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan

Delighted to meet Derek Ryan after his great show at the Hillgrove Hotel Monaghan in aid of Tydavnet National School. There are not many performers who can pack in a crowd of around 900 aged from 5/6 year-olds right up to 70+. I was also glad to renew a Carlow connection with Monaghan. Derek told me his mother used to work for the Nationalist & Leinster Times in Tullow Street, where my father started work in 1945 and went on to become Managing Director after his retirement from RTÉ. He met my mother (born in Castleblayney, the country music capital of Ireland) when she was working in a local bank in Carlow!

Derek Ryan at Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan Photo; © Michael Fisher

Derek Ryan at Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan Photo; © Michael Fisher

TRUAGH CHAMPIONS

Truagh Gaels Photo: © Michael Fisher

Truagh Gaels Photo: © Michael Fisher

Congratulations to Gaeil Triucha GAA club from North Monaghan, All-Ireland intermediate club champions 2014. In the final at Croke Paek they beat Kiltane from Mayo by an eight points margin, 2-21 to 2-13. Truagh lead by four points at half time, 2-10 to 2-06. The Monaghan men got off to a flying start with two well-taken scores from play but then conceded a penalty when Tommy Conroy was fouled. Mikey Sweeney then added a goal for Kiltane, putting them four points in the lead, before Truagh took control again. I was impressed with the performance of Mark Counihan up front. Plenty of celebration tonight no doubt North of Emyvale, towards Carrickroe and Clara! I was glad to see some of my Tydavnet neighbours there in support of the North Monaghan representatives. Also present was the President of the GAA’s Ulster Council Martin McAviney from Ballybay. Just a pity that Emyvale narrowly missed qualifying for the junior club championship final which was the curtain-raiser. Their semi-final victors Twomilehouse from Kildare saw of the challenge of Fuerty from Roscommon in another high-scoring game 5-7 to 1-11. Both were great advertisements for club football. More details of the match on the official GAA site here and you can find more pictures on the Monaghan GAA site here.

MIDWIVES’ TALES

Midwives are in the news today on both sides of the Irish Sea. In Ireland, it has emerged that midwifery staff at the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise had written to two Irish government ministers in 2006 expressing concern over staffing levels at the hospital. In the 2006 letter to then minister for finance Brian Cowen and then minister for health Mary Harney, the hospital’s midwifery staff said they had “a real fear” that a mother or baby will die in their care before these issues are addressed. In the letter, seen by RTÉ’s Investigation Unit, they also said they had made their concerns known to management on a number of occasions but that nothing had happened.

The letter was written prior to all of the deaths of four babies examined in last night’s documentary ‘Fatal Failures’. The babies died in similar circumstances over a six-year period at the hospital. They were all alive at the onset of labour, but died either during labour or within seven days of birth. The Irish Health Service Executive has apologised unequivocally to the families.

In an unrelated development, RTÉ News also reported on the last baby being born at Mount Carmel Hospital in South Dublin on the day that 200 staff members have been made redundant. Another 128 staff will lose their jobs over the coming weeks. Staff attended a mass this evening to mark the closure of the hospital. Afterwards around 20 staff said they were planning a sit-in at the premises. The provisional liquidators confirmed that 572 maternity patients have been affected since the hospital went into liquidation last Friday. Four babies were born today and the final arrival was a girl.

In Westminster, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, like its Oireachtas counterpart, is playing an important role on the issue of health services, especially maternity. Channel 4 News reports that in a damning investigation into the state of maternity care, the Public Accounts Committee criticised both the British Department of Health and NHS England for being unable to tell it who is accountable for “ensuring something as fundamental” as whether the NHS has enough midwives. It said it had gathered evidence that “many maternity services are running at a loss, or at best breaking even, and that the available funding may be insufficient for trusts to employ enough midwives and consultants to provide high quality, safe care”.

The report added that “although there has been a welcome increase in midwives, there is still a national shortage in Britain of some 2,300 midwives required to meet current birth rates. Pressure on staff leads to low morale and nearly one-third of midwives with less than 10 years’ work experience are intending to leave the profession within a year. Over half of obstetric units do not employ enough consultants to ensure appropriate cover at all times.

The committee reported that rates of infection among new mothers, infection to the baby and injury to the baby “are all higher at the weekend”. It added: “Although there have been substantial improvements in levels of consultant presence on labour wards in recent years, over half of obstetric units were still not meeting the levels recommended by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists at September 2012.”

Labour MP, Margaret Hodge, who chairs the committee, said: “The vast majority of women who use NHS services to have their babies have good experiences, but outcomes and performance could still be much better. Despite an overall increase in the number of midwives there is still a shortage of 2,300 that are required to meet current birth rates – a truly worrying figure. What’s more, the Department of Health and NHS England struggled to tell my committee who is accountable for ensuring something as fundamental as whether the NHS has enough midwives. As things stand, there is evidence that many maternity services are running at a loss, or at best breaking even, and that the available funding may be insufficient for trusts to employ enough midwives and consultants to provide high quality, safe care.”

Royal College of Midwives

Royal College of Midwives logo

Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: “Maternity services are many thousands of midwives short of the number needed to deliver safe, high quality care. The birthrate remains exceptionally high and as this and the National Audit Office report states, births are also becoming increasingly complex. This puts even more demands on midwives and maternity services. We are seeing areas such as antenatal and postnatal care in particular suffering because trusts often do not have enough midwives to provide consistent and high quality care before and after pregnancy.”

RCM Chief Executive Cathy Warwick  Photo: © Jess Hurd/RCM

RCM Chief Executive Cathy Warwick Photo: © Jess Hurd/RCM

RCM campaign badge

RCM campaign badge

She added: “At the moment there seems to be a gap between the actual cost of maternity care and the amount of money hospitals get to provide it. This cannot continue and maternity services need to see the money they receive meet the cost of care. If this does not happen I fear services will be cut, choice will be reduced and care will suffer.” Details of the RCM’s report on the state of maternity services in the UK (2013) can be found here and the full report is available here. It was launched in London on December 11th.

LUKE KELLY: IRISH TIMES

This is part of an Irish Times feature by Una Mullally on Luke Kelly, who died 30 years ago today, aged 43. She says the singer’s legacy consists of his own achievements and his influence, which lives on in the intonations of many Irish singing voices. Tonight a tribute concert was held at Vicar Street in Dublin in his memory.

“Having grown up on Sheriff Street in Dublin’s inner city, and having left school in his early teens, Kelly typified the hard working-class musician. It is perhaps fitting that one of his early heroes, Pete Seeger, should die in the week of Kelly’s anniversary. The recordings of Woody Guthrie and his friendship with Seán Mulready would become strong musical touchstones for Kelly on his journey towards becoming one of the most significant figures in 20th-century Irish music”.

Raglan Road…one of my favourites

“An appreciation for traditional music is stirring among a new generation of music fans – many of whom weren’t even born when Kelly died in 1984. This is thanks, in part, to The Gloaming’s ascent. Like The Gloaming, Kelly produced visceral reinterpretations of songs that to many people were historical artefacts, rather than living pieces of musical art. In the process, he inspired and invigorated countless ballad singers. Dissecting what makes an artist as emotionally fine-tuned as Kelly might seem overly clinical, but there was a magic in his voice that many musicians have since tried to tap into”.

John Sheahan, who joined The Dubliners in 1964, has written a sonnet to mark the anniversary. Of Kelly’s talent, he told the Irish Times: “It’s to do with the nature of the way he sang – such passion and commitment – and he was a great interpreter of songs. He took risks in singing and in the manner he phrased songs. He would hold on for that millisecond longer than anyone else would dare to, then catch up on the melody and create a certain tension with the listener. It’s like a high jumper going those extra few millimetres and beating the height. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it’s wonderful. When it fails, you’re grateful they took the chance.”

The article continues:

“Kelly was keenly political, a member of the Communist Party and a fundraiser for Amnesty International. Sheahan points to his generosity as one of his defining characteristics. He remembers an occasion when Kelly’s wife, the actress Deirdre O’Connell, had returned from a furniture auction with a table. By coincidence, Sheahan’s wife had picked up a set of chairs at auction similar to the table, and he joked about the coincidence to Kelly. ‘Before I could say anything, he had the table out the door and strapped to the roof of my car. He had no great commitment to material possessions’.”

When a Belfast family with whom Kelly and The Dubliners were friends were made homeless after being burned out of their house in the late 1960s, Kelly offered them the basement of his home, where they lived for a decade.

Scorn not his simplicity

“His legacy was putting his own stamp on a song such that it became the definitive version of a song for others to come along and emulate,” says Sheahan. “Kelly’s legacy is also the ongoing culture resonance of The Dubliners, who took songs people were familiar with – albeit in a rigid parlour or classroom setting – and reinvented them. Traditional music up until then was sitting down playing jigs and reels. We stood up. Here we are. Take us or leave us. No apologies.”

SONNET FOR LUKE

A fiery halo crowns your lived-in face,
You shine forth like a beacon from the throng,
Among your fellow peers you set the pace,
And soar above the crowd on wings of song.

Committed to the cause of human rights,
You hold aloft the flame of Amnesty,
When striking workers seek you in their plight,
You rally with your songs unstintingly.

A minstrel boy, you charm your way through life,
Enriching all who chance to pass your way,
You shelter wayward spirits from the night,
And raise them up on wings till dawn of day.

Though links with us alas too soon are severed,
Your spirit and your song will soar unfettered.

© John Sheahan January 2014

MAYOR OF MANY COLOURS

Launch of Belfast Children's Festival  Photo: Arts Council via twitter

Launch of Belfast Children’s Festival Photo: Arts Council via twitter

Lord Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muileoir showed he is a man of many colours…or at least his hair is…when he launched the Belfast Children’s Festival (March 7th-14th) in the city centre this morning along with the Chair of the Arts Council Bob Collins. Hairdressing meets art by Sienta La Cabeza, a Catalan group from Barcelona.

Lord Mayor with Marie-Louise Muir, BBC Radio Ulster

Lord Mayor with Marie-Louise Muir, BBC Radio Ulster

The Lord Mayor even gave an interview to Marie-Louise Muir of BBC Radio Ulster’s Arts Extra programme while his hair was being reconfigured!

New-style Lord Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muileor

New-style Lord Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muileor

The Lord Mayor attended a number of other engagements throughout the day but was perhaps lucky that he did not have to chair a Council meeting! How long we have to wait until he reverts to his traditional look remains to be seen! Here’s a reminder of how things looked in the Lord Mayor’s parlour yesterday (Tuesday) when I was among a group of Lions Clubs representatives to be welcomed by him at City Hall.

Lord Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muileor with Lions 105I District Governor Liam Lyons, PDG Sean Sandford, PDG James O'Sullivan & Michael Fisher (Belfast Club)

Lord Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muileor with Lions 105I District Governor Liam Lyons, PDG Sean Sandford, PDG James O’Sullivan & Michael Fisher (Belfast Club)