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Sinn Féin President elect Mary Lou McDonald TD gives her first major speech to party activists


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Sinn Féin Health spokesperson Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD has expressed concern that changes in health service structures and the current difficulties in the peace process are preventing the further development of all-Ireland co-operation in health service delivery. Deputy Ó Caoláin was speaking during a tour of Co. Donegal with Sinn Féin EU candidate in the North West constituency, Pearse Doherty.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"The Minister for Health and Children has now published the Health Amendment Bill 2004 which removes elected representatives from health boards and vests all powers and responsibilities in the hands of health board CEOs. The boards themselves are to be abolished and replaced by the Health Services Executive.

"I am very concerned at the loss of democratic accountability and at the implications for all-Ireland co-operation in health which was delivered

primarily through the health boards. The Co-Operation and Working Together programme involves the North Western Health Board, the North Eastern Health Board and health authorities in the Six Counties. Equally of concern is the current crisis in the peace process which affects the potential for further co-operation.

"I am calling on the Minister for Health and Children to address this issue in a more focused manner. The people of the Border region in particular have much to gain by the pooling of resources and the integration of facilities. We need to see further development, not backsliding, in the interests of all health service users in Ireland."ENDS

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Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin in the forthcoming EU Elections Mary Lou McDonald has welcomed remarks by the Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy, which suggest the force is committed to providing a service to all areas, particularly marginalised parts of the city. Speaking after attending a seminar entitled Developing Integrated Policing organised by the Blanchardstown Local Drugs Task Force and the Combat Poverty Agency held in An Draoicht in Blanchardstown this morning, Ms McDonald was concerned however, at whether this commitment, would be matched by actions and resources.

Ms McDonald said: "While the remarks of the Garda Commissioner are undoubtedly welcome, they are scant comfort for local communities across Dublin besieged by anti-social behaviour who see themselves as having been abandoned by the Gardaí to struggle on without any level of police service. The Gardaí must realise that this is a genuinely held perception in marginalised and deprived communities and work to counteract it.

"The best way to do this is for the new local policing committees envisaged in proposed legislation to have at their hearts the needs and interests of the communities they serve and meaningful representation from the local people. We need new structures for community policing that are accountable to the community and adequately resourced. Words must be backed by actions on the ground and the necessary resources.

"I believe Sinn Féin's recently published policy on Garda reform, Policing for the People, points the way to accountable and transparent policing that is founded on a community centred approach where marginalised communities are not seen by the Gardaí as problems, but as people to be assisted and protected. If the Government is truly committed to this approach they will make sure that more than bland rhetoric is provided." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Representative for Dublin South East, Daithí Doolan, speaking today in Dublin, called on Gardaí to co-operate fully with people registering to vote in the forthcoming elections. Mr. Doolan said, "current legislation requires people who are applying to be included on the register of electors for June to have their forms filled out in the presence of a Garda and signed by the Garda. While encouraging constituents to register to do so I have been alarmed by the fact that Gardaí are totally unaware of their obligations under this legislation. I have spoken to one Garda station here in Dublin's inner city and was concerned when Gardaí informed me that they were unaware of their role."

Mr. Doolan continued, "In my own constituency there is a large number of people who have recently moved to their current address and are not registered to vote. I am actively encouraging them to register and to use their vote. I made it my business to contact the Gardaí and discuss the matter. But having spoken to them I realised they themselves had no idea of the requirements and responsibilities under this legislation. Many of my constituents are non nationals voting here for the first time. Their right to vote must be upheld and should not be relegated because the Gardaí simply do not understand their responsibilities and have not been informed by the government of their duties in this regard."

In conclusion Mr. Doolan demanded "That Martin Cullen, Minister for the Environment, inform all Garda stations, as a matter urgency, of their obligations and to ensure that anyone wishing to register to vote can do so without hindrance." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd has expressed concern that the imposition of top of fees will damage our health service.

Mr O'Dowd said:

"Over the next decade the current shortages will become more and more serious unless we begin training more staff across all parts of our health service. Top up fees make this situation much worse. Top up fees will damage our Health service.

"Our health service is struggling with staff shortages. There are not enough doctors, nurses or any of the other allied health professionals to sustain and develop the services we need. We are not making the impact on waiting times or in reducing trolley waits that we should expect.

"The introduction of the EU working time directive will also impact on junior doctors both in terms of their salaries and in terms of creating an even greater demand for junior doctors within our health service.

"The imposition of top up fess will particularly hit students studying longer degrees and science based degrees where costs are already higher. The BMA has estimated that the average medical student debt averaged £17,024 in 2003 across all undergraduate years to a maximum of £49,600 in final year.

The BMA also estimate that the introduction of top-up fees will lead to some medical students having 91% more debt when they leave university than those studying a three-year undergraduate course. These figures should send out a very serious warning about the long-term future of our health service.

"High levels of debt like this will undoubtedly act as a deterrent to people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. We need more people from a working class background coming into the health professionals not less. Rather than opening up access to our staff starved health service the introduction of top up fees will further discourage people from making the long-term financial commitment to our health service.

"The introduction of tuition fees in 1998 led to a 9.5% decrease in applications from people from socio-economic groups IV and V between 1997 and 2001 across all courses. The imposition of top up fees will be an even greater disaster." ENDS

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The Right to vote -- British government guilty of electoral fraud
211,000 people denied the right to vote

The democratic objective should be to facilitate the exercise of the right to vote, to enable the maximum number of people to vote and to remove deliberate and other impediments to the exercise of this fundamental right.

In May 2002 the British government, in a gross interference in the electoral process, introduced restrictive electoral legislation for the north of Ireland, which has resulted in the disenfranchisement of 211,000 voters (16.5% of the overall electorate).

This is not simply a failure of the system to register people to vote, this was designed to happen and legislated for in the 'Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002'.

The 2001 Census figures indicated that 1,280,480 people would be eligible to vote by 2004. Under the British government's 2002 electoral legislation, however, only 1,069,160 voters appear on the February 2004 register. This means that 211,000 people are being denied their vote.

If this political discrimination is allowed to continue the electoral register will continue to get smaller with every year that passes.

Political discrimination

This electoral legislation and the new practices, which it sets out are completely out of step with practices in the rest of Ireland and Britain. Among the discriminatory practices introduced in May 2002 were:

  • Individual registration of voters as opposed to household registration of voters, which is the case in the rest of Ireland and Britain.
  • A requirement on each individual to provide personal identifiers including date of birth and national insurance numbers when applying to go on the Register of Electors. Voters in the rest of Ireland and in Britain do not have to do this.
  • Annual Registration -- this form of rolling registration has caused huge confusion. Electors in the rest of Ireland and in Britain are not removed from the electoral register if they do not apply annually.
  • Statutory requirement on voters to produce personal photographic identification from a narrow band of photographic ID. This does not apply to voters in the rest of Ireland or to Britain.

This legislation was introduced on foot of false claims by Sinn Féin's political opponents that the party was involved in electoral fraud.

These allegations are not only untrue but hide the real reason behind the legislation which was to remove the number of actual or potential Sinn Féin voters on the Register of Electors and erect barriers to those who want to exercise their right to vote.

The Electoral Commission in its December 03 report commented thus on the question of electoral fraud: "Despite the fact that electoral fraud is perceived to be a major issue there are no statistics to support these widely held perceptions and there have been few if any successful prosecutions. Official reports published between 1997 and 2001 identified consistent themes in respect of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. All confirmed that the extent of fraud was difficult to quantify and conclusive evidence was hard to obtain. Consequently the impact of the Act on actual levels of fraud cannot be gauged, as there is no readily available benchmark against which to measure."

This observation reflects the reality of the situation on the ground. The electoral process was turned on its head to facilitate those political parties making groundless allegations to explain away the decline in their support at the polls.

In addition to this there is evidence now emerging that the new regulations are adversely affecting people living in areas of high social and economic deprivation.

Research by the Electoral Commission has shown that the highest decline in electoral registration occurred in the top 20 most deprived wards of which 69% are catholic and 27% protestant.

This represents a serious adverse impact on the catholic/nationalist community in particular and exposes the highly political motivation behind the electoral legislation.

Those who supported this legislation must look to the effect it is having, not just in terms of denying large numbers of people their right to vote, but in the categories of people being affected: the poorest within the nationalist community and to a lesser degree the poorest within the protestant community.

It has affected the young, the old, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

The pattern emerging across the north is that this legislation is producing a two-tier system whereby affluent areas are returning high registration uptake and the poorest areas, mostly in deprived catholic and protestant wards are alarmingly low.

The social exclusion of large sections of the electorate breaches the existing anti-discrimination legislation. In terms of the catholic and nationalist people it does so on the grounds of religious belief and political opinion.

The right to vote is a basic democratic right. The denial of this right and the related issue of political discrimination cannot be allowed to continue.

Census Figures and Register of Electors
Eligible to Vote?

  • The following figures set out the facts -- those eligible to vote and those who are actually on the register and proves that the British government are guilty of electoral fraud. The information below includes:

- the number of people indicated as eligible to vote by the Census of 2001;

- the number of people on the Register of Electors published in November 2001 and compiled under the 'Representation of the People' Act,

- the number of people on the Register of Electors published in September 2003 and February 2004 and compiled under the new legislation the 'Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002'.

2001 Census: people entitled to vote:

  • The 2001 Census figure indicated that 1,233,753 people were entitled to vote at that time.

The Census figures also indicated that 104,727 young people would reach voting age between '01 and '04.

This makes a sub-total of 1,338,480 who are entitled to vote. This, however, is affected by the number of deaths -- 58,000 since the census was taken.

This reduction leaves a total of 1,280,480 approximately who are entitled to vote and who should be on the register of electors. Factors such as emigration would have an insignificant effect on this figure.

2001: Register of Electors Compiled under 'Representation of the People Act':

  • The Register of Electors published on 30 November 2001 contained 1,198,504 voters.

2003 and 2004 Register of Electors Compiled under 'Electoral Fraud (NI) Act 2002':

  • The Register of Electors on which the 2nd Assembly Elections were fought in November 2003 contained 1,097,551.
  • The Register of Electors published in February 2004 contained 1,069,160.

Discrepancy between electoral register and those entitled to vote

The most recent Register of Electors, as set out above, published in February 2004 shows a shortfall of:

- 28,391 on the September '03 Register of Electors

- 129,344 on the November '01 Register of Electors

- 211,000 on the Census figures of 2001, which indicated the number of people entitled to vote at that time and the number of young people who would reach voting age by 2004. (This figure has been adjusted to take into account the number of deaths since 2001.)

A pattern of annual reductions has been set in place by the new legislation.

In addition to the above 30,000 people were denied the right to vote last November because of the new photographic ID requirements: "There are approximately 30,000 people who, if they turn out to vote, would not have the applicable ID." Seamus Magee, Head of the Electoral Commission, 25/11/03.

The process is so complicated for voters that the Electoral Office, which is responsible for compiling the Register of Electors, lists 50 frequently asked questions about the registration process on its website.

Righting an undemocratic wrong -- summary of proposals

1. Household Registration should replace the new individual Registration scheme. This will require amending legislation.

2. Voter registration should take place every year and voters should stay on the register for five years.

3. Photographic and non-photographic forms of personal identification should be acceptable. These should include:

Irish, British and European passports

Irish, British and European driving licences including provisional driving licences

Government agency issued benefit books

Translink Senior Travel passes

Student and Trades Union membership cards

Marriage licence if married within the previous two years

Official electoral photographic identification

The Electoral Office should continue to provide mobile photographic booths across the north of Ireland to provide official electoral photographic identification.

4. Registration forms should be made widely available to the general public. They should be made available at Post Offices, Council Offices, libraries, advice centres, schools, colleges, universities and through political parties.

5. Electoral Courts should be abolished. The personal identifier requirements supplied on the registration form should be sufficient proof of identification and validation of an application.

6. Registration should be allowed up to 7 days before polling day.

Summary of Statistics

Census Figures 2001 and the Register of Electors

Shredding the Vote

16.5% of Electorate not registered to vote

Eligible to Vote 2004 1,280,480

Registered to vote 2004 1,069,160

Shortfall 2004 211,320

Shortfall as a percentage of the eligible vote 16.5%

The Census '01 and the Register of Electors

  • Census 2001 figures indicated the following:

- Eligible to vote at that time 1,233,753

- The number of young people to reach voting age

Between '01-'04 104,727

- The sub-total of the above is 1,338,480

- Approximately 58,000 names have been removed

from the register due to deaths between '01 and '04 58,000

- New sub-total eligible to vote '04 1,280,480

- Registered to vote '04 1,069,160

- Shortfall as between those eligible to vote and those

registered to vote 211,320

Register of Electors '01-'04

  • November 2001 1,198,504
  • September 2003 1,097,551
  • February 2004 1,069,160

Shredding the Vote

  • The February '04 Register of Electors shows a reduction of:

- 28,391 on the September '03 Register

- 129,344 on the November '01 Register

- 211,000 on the adjusted Census figures of '01.

A pattern of annual reductions has been set in place by the new legislation.

Photographic Identification

- Photographic ID: In addition to the above 30,000 people were denied the right to vote in the 2nd Assembly Elections because of the photographic ID requirements.

- "There are approximately 30,000 people who, if they turn out to vote, would not have the applicable ID."

Séamus Magee, Head of the Electoral Commission 25/11/03

Righting An Undemocratic Wrong -- background information

The democratic objective is to enable the maximum number of people to vote and to remove deliberate and other impediments to the exercise of the fundamental democratic right to vote. Towards this end Sinn Féin is proposing the following:

1. Voter Registration should take place every 5 years instead of the new arrangement, which requires voters to register every year or lose their right to vote.

In Britain a voter will stay on the Register of Electors for at least two years while in the rest of Ireland it is quite common for a voter to register only once in a lifetime. In both Britain and the rest of Ireland effective measures and processes are implemented annually to weed from the register names of people who, for instance, have died or left the jurisdiction, validate names currently on the register and to update the register with first time voters and others new to the register without resort to an annual register which removes voters who have not made application.

2. Household Registration should replace the new Individual Registration scheme. This would require amending legislation.

Household registration is the proven effective norm in England while in the rest of Ireland a process of continuous registration is the norm. The single application form used in both jurisdictions for all voters in a household also provides an effective trawl for first time voters and others who are proven to be particularly disadvantaged by the new scheme. This requires young people who have reached voting age to personally take the initiative to be included on the Register of Electors. The household register helps ensure that first time voters, the elderly, disabled or those with a learning disability do not fall through the net.

3. Photographic and non-photographic forms of personal identification should be acceptable. These should include:

- Irish, British and European passports,

- Irish, British and European driving licences including provisional driving licences,

- The range of government agency issued benefit books,

- Translink Senior Travelpasses,

- Student and Trades Union membership cards,

- Marriage license if married within the previous 2 years,

- Electoral ID Cards.

The Electoral Office should continue to provide mobile photographic booths across the north of Ireland to facilitate the provision official Electoral Identity cards.

In the rest of Ireland and Britain there is no statutory, universal requirement on voters to produce identification of any sort at polling stations on election day. An unquantifiable but significant number of voters in the north of Ireland were refused their right to vote at the last election because they could not comply with this regulation. This requirement discriminates again against a wide spectrum of the electorate including the young and the elderly, people with learning disabilities and people from areas of social deprivation. In the days preceding the November 2003 elections to the Assembly in the north of Ireland Séamus Magee, head of the Electoral Commission publicly stated that up to 30,000 would be denied their right to vote because of photographic ID requirements if they turned up at election stations.

4. Registration forms should be made widely available to the general public. They should be made available on-line and at Post Offices, Council offices, libraries, advice centres, schools, colleges, universities and through political parties.

The 2001 Census figures indicate that 1,280,480 people would be eligible to vote by 2004. The Electoral Office canvassed only 1,204,548 people in compiling the 2002 register under the new regulations. This further reduced to 1,098,301 individuals canvassed for the February '04 register. That is roughly the equivalent of the number of people on the September '03 register. This approach strongly suggests that we will see an annual reduction in the number of people registered to vote.

That is 182,189 individuals indicated as eligible to vote by the 2001 Census were not canvassed for the register of February '04 and did not receive an application form to register to vote.

5. Electoral courts should be abolished. The personal identifier requirements supplied in the registration form should be sufficient proof of identification and validation of an application.

Electoral courts exist in the rest of Ireland and in Britain but are rarely used. Indeed their used should be either random or where clear cause for challenge is present. However, their use in the north of Ireland, in relative terms, is extensive.* see below

The two-way function is for electors to challenge the absence of their name from the register and for the Electoral Office to challenge an application. The reality, in practice, is that electors who challenge the Electoral Office are more likely to turn up at an Electoral Court than electors whose application has been challenged by the Electoral Office. The latter simply do not want the inconvenience. This is a matter of individual commitment.

Moreover, the requirement that electors applying to get enrolled on the register furnish personal identifiers such as date of birth and national insurance number on their application form should be sufficient proof of identification and validation of an application. Instead of facilitating enrolment on the register the use of Electoral Courts and Personal Identification is being used as a 'belt and braces' approach to keeping electors off the register.

* On 14th February 2003 Sinn Féin local government Councillor Elena Martin forwarded by recorded delivery, 32 late applications to be enrolled on the Register of Electors to the Electoral Office in Banbridge, County Down. She attached a cover letter in her capacity as a publicly elected Sinn Féin representative. 28 of the 32 applicants were called before an Electoral Court. Later that month, Councillor Martin forwarded, in the same manner, an additional 18 applications. 10 of those 18 applicants were called before an Election Court.

6. Registration should be allowed up to 7 days before polling day.

Current practice could mean that an application to get on the Register of Electors would have to be submitted as long as 10 weeks in advance of an election and no shorter than 6 weeks in advance of an election.

For instance, the 26 November '03 Assembly elections in the north of Ireland were contested on the register published in September '03. The 16 June '04 European elections will be fought on the register published in early May. There is no good practical reason for not issuing a supplementary register later than these publication dates to accord voters their democratic right.

  • 211, 000 voters are not on the Register of Electors.
  • This represents 16.5% of the overall electorate.
  • An additional 30,000 voters could not vote at the last election because they did not have prescribed photographic identification.
  • The law and practices which give rise to this denial of a fundamental democratic right are applied exclusively to the north of Ireland.
  • Practices in the rest of Ireland and Britain seek to facilitate the electorate and not to erect barriers to the exercise of a democratic right.

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Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey today described the IMC 'as little more than a tool of British securocrats to be used to discriminate against Sinn Féin and our electorate'. Mr Maskey's comments come the day before the widely leaked IMC report is due to be published.

Mr Maskey said:

" Speculation in the media would indicate that this IMC report is designed to do little more than attempt to put Sinn Féin under pressure in advance of next weeks negotiations. Sanctions against Sinn Féin or our electorate are completely unacceptable. That they should come as the result of recommendations by an unelected and unaccountable securocrat body makes the situation even more ludicrous.

" This report will be based entirely upon briefings given to this body by the Special Branch and the other securocrat agencies. The very same people who stand indicted for organising and carrying out a campaign of state sponsored murder in the six counties. It is hardly surprising therefore the conclusions which will be drawn.

" The IMC's role from day one has been about providing the British government and the securocrats within the British system the political cover to exclude Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, from the process.

" Sinn Féin are committed absolutely to making this process work, others are not. Sinn Féin are only responsible for the actions of Sinn Féin and we will resist attempts which will be made to further undermine this process on the back of a report from a discredited grouping like the IMC." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Human Rights Caitriona Ruane has accused the PSNI of being 'in denial about the Human Rights abusers within its ranks'. Ms Ruane's comments come after the PSNI organised a conference in Belfast today at which the PSNI will give a presentation on Human Rights within the context of policing.

Ms Ruane said:

" Many people will be amazed at the brass neck of the PSNI organising a conference about Human Rights practices within policing. This is the force who for decades participated in the campaign of state sanctioned murder which Judge Cory has recently exposed. They continue to run agents within the various unionist paramilitary gangs and continue to control and manipulate those organisations.

" This is a force which is dominated and controlled by the Special Branch and which has human rights abusers spread throughout its ranks. Those individuals and communities who have suffered human rights abuses and continue to suffer human rights abuses at the hands of this force have every right to be angry at the organisation of this conference.

" It seems that Hugh Orde and his colleagues at the top of the PSNI are living in denial about the force which they head. Instead of trying to weed out human rights abusers Hugh Orde has time and again attempted to cover-up their presence within his force and protect them from public or independent scrutiny. This conference is part of that cosmetic exercise." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty MP this morning submitted a document to the NI Affairs Select Committee calling for the current legislation governing elections in the six counties to be amended as a matter of urgency.

Mr Doherty said:

" The current electoral legislation has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of people registered to vote in the six counties. The discrepancy between the electoral register and the census figures is alarming. This figure taken with those that the electoral authorities estimate are registered but do not have photographic ID indicate that up to 211,000 people are currently being denied their right to vote.

" This situation cannot be allowed to continue. This morning I submitted a document to the NI Affairs Select Committee setting out the position as it currently stands and demanding that the legislation be amended. I will meet with the Committee in May to deliver an oral presentation.

" For an electoral process to be seen to be working fairly then basic principles need to be established. Central to this is the right to vote. At present the situation in the six counties does not guarantee that right. There is an obligation on the British government to amend this disastrous piece of discriminatory legislation and begin the process of restoring confidence in the electoral process." ENDS

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Sinn Féin to campaign against citizenship referendum

Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh speaking following a meeting of the party‚s Ard Chomhairle in Dublin this weekend announced that Sinn Féin will be campaigning against the citizenship referendum and is calling on the government not to go ahead with it on June 11th. He said "this proposed referendum is an attack on human rights, will introduce racism into the campaign and has the potential to undermine efforts to rebuild the peace process."

Deputy Ó Snodaigh said:

"There was an extensive discussion at the Ard Chomhairle this weekend on the government's proposed citizenship referendum and the negative impact that their proposals would have across Irish society. The Ard Chomhairle criticised the government's proposals as opportunistic and irresponsible and unanimously endorsed a recommendation that we oppose this referendum and call on the government not to go ahead with it on June 11th.

"Sinn Féin opposes the holding of this referendum on a number of grounds. It is an attack on human rights and will introduce racism to the upcoming election campaign. It also involves a unilateral change to the Good Friday Agreement, something that has implications for the Agreement itself and has the potential to undermine efforts to rebuild the peace process.

"The issues at the heart of this referendum are extremely complex. In addition to the legal, constitutional, and rights complexities, it is an issue that gets to the heart of how we, as a nation, define the basis of citizenship, and by extension how we want the Irish nation to grow and develop. It is crucial that this issue gets proper public consideration and debate. It is not something that should be cynically introduced into an election campaign at the 11th hour.

"Sinn Féin is calling on the government to cancel their proposed referendum and instead bring forward a positive policy on immigration, something which is long overdue."ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan will call on the Irish government to demand access to British files on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings at a meeting of the British Irish Parliamentary Body in Cork tomorrow.

Deputy Morgan said:

"The failure of the British government to co-operate with the Barron Inquiry and with the Justice sub-Committee on the Barron Report is deeply insulting to the survivors and bereaved of those killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

"It is clear from the reports of both the Barron Inquiry and the Justice sub committee that the search for truth into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings was severely hampered by the refusal of the British to allow access to thousands of files in its possession which may be relevant.

"Tomorrow at a meeting of the British Irish Parliamentary Body I will be asking what measures the Irish government have taken to get access to such files. Has the Taoiseach urged Tony Blair to ensure the release all relevant files? And crucially, has he urged him to instruct all those from the British side to co-operate with any future inquiry.

"Sinn Féin supports demands for the Irish government to establish a full international public inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings without further delay. It is crucial that the British stop impeding the search for truth and open up their files."ENDS

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Sinn Féin Councilor Eoin O'Broin (Chair of the Councils Culture, Arts & Heritage Committee) has described last nights fire at the North Street Arcade as 'an architectural and cultural tragedy of significant proportions'. Speaking after surveying the scene this morning Cllr O'Broin said:

'The North Street Arcade was a distinct and prized building which contributed greatly to the built heritage of Belfast city centre. It was a building of great beauty and which contained great history.

'In addition to its architectural importance it was home to a large number of small traders and cultural organizations. The Cream of the North recording studio provided much needed rehearsal space for emerging bands. The offices of the Film Festival and Cathedral Quarter Arts festival gave the arcade much of its cultural focus, and the Arcadia Cafe was a regular venue for many arts and cultural events.

'My understanding is that the damage is so extensive that it may not be possible to restore it. This would be a great tragedy for the residents of the arcade, for the Cathedral Quarter and the City generally

'Only last week I met with a group of traders from the Arcade to discuss their concerns regarding the proposed Cathedral Way development scheme which is currently with the planning service. I will be contacting the traders in the coming days to discuss the weekend events further.' ENDS

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Sinn Féin Assembly member Bairbre de Brún has announced that the party will tomorrow meeting with the NI Select Affairs Committee and make both oral and written submissions into the operation of the current legislation under which elections in the six counties are fought.

Ms de Brún said:

"The basis of any fair electoral process has to be establishing peoples right to vote and ensuring that obstacles are not placed in the way of people wishing to exercise that right. Under the current legislation, under which elections in the six counties are being fought, the exact opposite is the case.

"Obstacles are being placed in the way of those wishing to register and obstacles are being placed in the way of those wishing to vote. The result of all of this has been that over 200,000 people are currently being denied their right to vote and it is predicted that this situation will get worse year after year if the legislation is not amended.

"Tomorrow Sinn Féin will make a submission to the NI Select Affairs Committee on this issue. It is crucial that they understand that public confidence in the operation of the electoral system is being eroded and this needs to be addressed urgently.

"We will be making a series of detailed recommendations around the issues of voter ID, annual registration and household registration. This meeting is the latest in a series of such meetings which we have held with the two governments, the electoral authorities, trade unions and civic society in our efforts to see this matter properly addressed and dealt with."ENDS

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Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin has said that media speculation concerning the content of the IMC Report 'vindicated entirely his party's position that the Body is little more than a tool to be used by the British government to undermine the electoral mandate of Sinn Féin'.

Mr. McLaughlin said:

"Reports about the content of the IMC document in the media today speculate that the Body will major on alleged republican activity, slow pedal on the activities of unionist paramilitaries and ignore entirely British government breaches of the Agreement up until now.

"It will be interesting to see what the IMC have to say about the British government policy of state sanctioned murder recently exposed by Judge Cory, or the series of murders carried out by unionist paramilitaries over the past year, many of which are reportedly linked to British agents working within the unionist paramilitaries.

"It has been indicated that the IMC will ignore the British government's decision to suspend the political institutions and cancel elections on three separate occasions. It will ignore the failure of the British government to demilitarise its war machine in Ireland and it continuing failure to deliver on Good Friday Agreement commitments on policing, justice, human rights and equality issues.

"The timing of the IMC Report in the lead up to the latest round of negotiations is clearly political and clearly designed to influence those discussions. Many people will be angered at the actions of this unrepresentative and unelected quango exerting a negative influence over the peace process.

"The irony of a Body, set up by the British who are in breach of the Good Friday Agreement themselves, passing judgments and recommending sanctions over participants in the peace process is not lost on the broad nationalist and republican community.

"Our position regarding the IMC is very clear. They are a smokescreen for exclusion, operate outside the terms of the Agreement and have no positive role to play. It is my belief that the contents of their report will entirely vindicate this position.

"Sinn Féin is responsible only for the actions of Sinn Féin. No party has done more to help make this process work than Sinn Féin. Our record in and commitment to this process cannot be questioned. Sinn Féin is not prepared to have our rights and entitlements and those of the majority of nationalists in the north undermined or diminished by the British government through its proxy the IMC. ENDS

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Sinn Féin Representative for Dublin South East Daithí Doolan speaking with community groups in Dublin's inner city has called on the City Council to ensure that the proposed City Development Plan, "prohibits any incinerator to be built on the Poolbeg Peninsula, Ringsend. The City Development Plan gives us all a unique opportunity to ensure that Dublin will continue to grow in a sustainable manner. Incineration has no part to play in a sustainable, healthy future for the capital. This plan must underline this."

Mr. Doolan outlined his party's proposals:

"The plan will guide the development of the city from 2005 to 2011. As part of the process we made a comprehensive submission to the Development Plan. It is a wide ranging submission with a focus on housing, the environment , waste management and community sustainability. While other party‚s may make some amendments Sinn Féin has compiled a detailed submission. We are proposing:

  • Housing as a right. The plan must tackle the need for affordable housing. Provide adequate City Council housing and regulate the private rented sector.
  • No incineration but a waste management plan that is based on tackling our waste crisis at source aimed at reducing, reusing and recycling.
  • Communities to be central to any development in the city. No longer should communities have solutions forced on them. Communities must be strengthened, resourced and supported in tackling the problems they face.

Sinn Féin believes that these are the issues that people are concerned about and these are the issues that need to be addressed. But any plan is only as good as the process engaged in compiling it. This plan must be accessible to all who live in this city of ours. It can not be allowed to become so dust gathering document, for too long City Management have engaged in fanciful processes only to produce a report or document that further alienated the public. This can not be allowed to happen with this plan. Sinn Féin will make sure it does not happen, we aim to be the engine that drives this plan."

Mr. Doolan concluded by demanding that any agreed development plan, "is adequately resourced by the government to allow it to evolve and provide for a changing Dublin." ENDS

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Sinn Féin North West EU candidate Pearse Doherty has welcomed Labour leader Pat Rabbitte's acknowledgement that Sinn Féin is growing in popularity across the island but said what Mr. Rabbitte is failing to understand is that the reason for our growth is our leadership in the peace process, our work in local communities and our agenda for change.

Mr Doherty said:

"I welcome Pat Rabbitte's acknowledgement that Sinn Féin is growing in popularity across the island. What he also needs to understand is that the reason for our growth is our leadership in the peace process, our work in local communities and our agenda for change.

"We are bringing forward a positive message and empowering local communities.

"I would call on the Labour Leader not to get drawn into Minister McDowell's negative agenda but instead to work with Sinn Féin to bring about real change for Irish people."ENDS

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Sinn Féin Dublin EU candidate Mary Lou McDonald has today slammed reports that the number of US troops passing through Shannon Airport, has increased dramatically since the beginning of the year. She called on the Irish government to stop allowing Irish airports to be used by the US military on route to the Gulf.

Speaking as EU Foreign Ministers were gathering in Tullamore this afternoon, Ms McDonald said: 'The EU should now demand that troops be withdrawn from Iraq and that responsibility for the transition to democracy be handed to the UN and ultimately to the people of Iraq themselves."

Ms. McDonald said:

"The Aer Rianta report clearly shows a dramatic increase in the numbers of US military personnel using the airport. In January 2004, 7,992 troops passed through Shannon, compared with a figure of 16,697 in March 2004. To say that this is a worrying development is an understatement. The use of our ports and airports by foreign military is a complete breach of our neutrality and must end immediately.

"Sinn Féin believes that the war in Iraq was wrong and the ongoing occupation of Iraq is wrong. The Irish government, through the Presidency of the EU, has an integral part to play in to bringing an immediate end to the occupation and a return to diplomacy and dialogue. They also need to uphold the principle of neutrality, and cease the facilitation of Shannon airport for the US war effort.

"The EU should now demand that troops be withdrawn and that responsibility for the transition to democracy be handed to the UN and ultimately to the people of Iraq themselves."ENDS

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Sinn Féin EU candidate for the South Constituency David Cullinane speaking in Tipperary this evening said that the powerful in the EU are obsessed with becoming a significant military player on the global stage. He said " Sinn Féin wants neutrality to be enshrined in the Irish Constitution and codified in legislation. We support a withdrawal from the EU Rapid Reaction Force and NATO's Partnership for Peace. Irish troops should train and serve abroad only under the auspices and leadership of the UN, and only with prior Dáil approval."

He was speaking at a conference organised by the Tipperary Peace Convention 'Keeping the peace" - The role of the European Union as a global player" . Also speaking at the meeting are Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and and Junior Minister Dick Roche.

Mr. Cullinane said:

"The EU can play a positive role in a global context. The EU should lead by example in the protection of civil liberties and fundamental human rights of its citizens, in the economy, global justice, tackling poverty and many other issues. However, the current EU is far from this potential. The powerful in the EU are obsessed with becoming a significant military player on the global stage.

Successive EU treaties since the Single European Act in 1987 have corroded independent foreign policy. Despite all the denials, an EU Army is evolving incrementally, from the establishment of the European Security and Defence Policy and the Rapid Reaction Force to the creation of command and control structures, in which Ireland now participates. The draft Constitution provides a much greater scope for this evolving military super state.

Sinn Féin opposes a militarised EU, whether constituted as a bulwark to the United States, or in league with the United States. This is not the direction the EU should take.

Sinn Féin believes that the legitimacy and predominance of the United Nations as the only fully inclusive multinational body must be reasserted. But that's not all. We need to actively promote UN primacy, UN reform and capacity building to create a revitalised UN. Our policy of Positive Neutrality in action is very clear. Sinn Féin wants neutrality to be enshrined in the Irish Constitution and codified in legislation. We support a withdrawal from the EU Rapid Reaction Force and NATO's Partnership for Peace. Irish troops should train and serve abroad only under the auspices and leadership of the UN, and only with prior Dáil approval. We believe that there should be no use of Irish airports, airspace, seaports, or territorial waters for preparation for war or other armed conflict by foreign powers. The situation, which currently exists at Shannon, is a fundamental attack on Irish neutrality, which must be defended vigorously."ENDS

Full text of speech

Can I begin by thanking the organisers of the Tipperary Peace Convention for inviting me to speak this evening, I am pleased to be here - Go raibh maith agat.

A debate on the role of the European Union as a global player is something that has become increasingly significant with the draft EU Constitution nearing completion. This Constitution represents another monumental step towards the development of the EU as a super-state with its own military power. The debate on the role of the EU in International Affairs is also influenced by many other events including the ongoing occupation of Iraq and the role of the US and Britain on the world stage, globalisation and the growing poverty gap between the West and the developing world.

For Sinn Féin any examination of the role of the EU as a global player must look not just inside European borders but also on the impact of its decisions in other countries across the globe, particularly the developing world, whether it is in relation to trade policies, migration, militarisation or political co-operation.

Tonight I want to briefly discuss these issues -- the positive role the EU can play on the global stage, EU militarization, the role of the UN, a global social and economic justice agenda and the position of Ireland in this crucial debate.

Global Justice

Sinn Féin has a consistent and positive view on social and economic justice, not just at home or for the European Union, but also across the globe. We are socialists and we are internationalists. Earlier this year we published a fifteen point plan calling on the Irish government to use its Presidency to initiate a Global Social Justice Agenda. It is disappointing that such a programme has not been delivered.

We believe that delivering a sustainable programme of social justice on a global scale remains the greatest challenge facing governments and citizens throughout the world.

The term 'weapons of mass destruction' has entered our collective vocabulary, in relation to the alleged weapons to be held by Iraq. But the real weapons were held and used in the past by NATO and other nuclear states. Let us be clear, the greatest weapons of mass destruction in our world today are poverty, hunger and disease. Within the EU alone, it has been estimated that 55 million people live in daily poverty -- worldwide that figure is almost unimaginable. AIDS continues to sweep through sub-Saharan Africa at an alarming rate, and in some areas of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the crisis has reached unmanageable levels. I point all of these issues out to highlight the fact that these are global problems, not simply EU problems, or sub-Saharan African ones. Poverty, disease and hunger do not recognise sovereign borders. But for all its rhetoric the EU military budget massively outstrips its Aid budget. This is wrong and has to change.

Positive Role of EU

While we don't agree with the EU superstate, Sinn Féin believes that the EU can play a positive role in a global context. The EU should lead by example in the protection of civil liberties and fundamental human rights of its citizens. We want an EU of equals. A globally responsible EU. An economically and socially just EU. We want to be part of an EU with institutions that promote national collective and individual rights. A Union that works towards full employment, housing, health and education for all its citizens. We want to build a Europe that leads the way in the cancellation of debt in the developing world, that is nuclear free, that protects the environment and that welcomes and trades fairly with other regions. In all of these areas the EU could lead by tending to its own backyard.

Negative Role of the EU

However, the current EU is far from this potential. The powerful in the EU are obsessed with becoming a significant military player on the global stage. This is unacceptable. The EU has developed from a limited project of economic cooperation amongst member states, discussing issues of common concern, to an ever-evolving military and economic superpower.

The EU also is acting in an increasingly insular and selfish manner, closing its borders, slamming its doors shut, building its own army. Sinn Féin is alarmed at what the European Union has been transformed into. Fortress Europe in 2004 is very different to the EEC that Ireland joined in 1973. But the EU doesn't have to be this way. It only reflects the political agenda of the most powerful players in the EU - the big states, the Commission and big business. It reflects a lack of political will to change it. But it can be changed and should be changed.

Militarisation of the EU

Militarisation of the EU has been an on-going process. Successive EU treaties since the Single European Act in 1987 have corroded independent foreign policy. Despite all the denials, an EU Army is evolving incrementally, from the establishment of the European Security and Defence Policy and the Rapid Reaction Force to the creation of command and control structures, in which Ireland now participates.

The draft Constitution provides a much greater scope for this evolving military super state. Article 40 of the draft, provides for the framing of a Common Defence Policy, which can be the subject of "enhanced cooperation", or the subcontracting of defence to a smaller group of states. The draft Constitution also has provisions for the contribution of forces to the improvement of military capabilities and the establishment of an EU Armaments Agency, the blueprint for an EU military Industrial Complex. In addition, member states shall be required to defend other members in times of attack, and to cooperate with NATO in this, under the controversial mutual defence clause.

Constitution or no Constitution, many of these developments are already well underway. The EU Security Doctrine has been agreed, and includes initiatives to extend the EU Rapid Reaction Force's Petersburg Tasks well beyond humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, to include military intervention to assist other states both within and outside the EU in 'counter-terrorism' and 'counter-insurgency' operations.

Sinn Féin opposes a militarised EU, whether constituted as a bulwark to the United States, or in league with the United States. This is not the direction the EU should take. International peace and security is too important an issue to be left to the elites -- either in the United States or the EU. What is required is a fully inclusive multinational and multilateral approach.

Primacy of the UN

Sinn Féin believes that the legitimacy and predominance of the United Nations as the only fully inclusive multinational body must be reasserted. But that's not all. We need to actively promote UN primacy, UN reform and capacity building to create a revitalised UN. A UN which is capable of fulfilling the promise of the Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and of upholding international law. Is the EU doing this? No. The EU is busy pursuing and paying for its own security agenda. The true effect of the development of EU defence capacity, according to the 2000 Report of the panel on United Nations Peace Operations (the Brahimi Report) has been the depletion, not enhancement, of UN peacekeeping capacity.

The UN has been in crisis since the 1980's and 1990's, when it was subjected to a sustained assault led by big business interests. It was systematically under funded and undermined for nearly two decades and then was castigated for its failure to respond effectively to Rwanda and Kosovo. The world's bigger states have shown a consistent and flagrant disregard for the decisions made by the UN. The invasion of Iraq is testament to this.

What we need is not more outsourcing of peacekeeping to regional bodies such as the EU. We need root and branch UN reform, so that it can re-emerge as a truly respected international and authoritative body capable of responding adequately to or preferably prevention international crisis and upholding International Law.

Ireland and Neutrality

I want to spend a minute or two looking at our own country North and South, and where we fit into this debate. In the South, at some level the issue of the EU has been debated in successive referenda - Amsterdam, Maastricht and Nice 1 and 11.

But in the North, people aren't even consulted on decisions that impact greatly on their lives. The logic for Ireland being dealt with as a single unit is undeniable.

Perhaps one of the most important debates at the moment with respect to both our present and our all Ireland future is around Irish neutrality.

Sinn Féin supports a policy of Positive Neutrality in action. There is a long tradition of republican support for military neutrality as a cornerstone of an independent foreign policy in an independent Ireland. The European project fundamentally threatens the principle of Irish sovereignty. Our vision of positive neutrality in action is not about pacifism or isolationism. Sinn Féin supports Ireland's proud tradition of participation in peace-keeping missions, and our involvement in providing humanitarian aid and relief to impoverished regions.

Our vision of Irish neutrality is fully in keeping with our anti-imperialism, our internationalism, and our commitment to demilitarisation and conflict resolution through dialogue. The mass mobilisations on our streets after the beginning of the Iraq war, and those who opposed the two Nice referendums, are indicators of the depth of public concern for the protection of Irish neutrality.

Our policy of Positive Neutrality in action is very clear. Sinn Féin wants neutrality to be enshrined in the Irish Constitution and codified in legislation. We support a withdrawal from the EU Rapid Reaction Force and NATO's Partnership for Peace. Irish troops should train and serve abroad only under the auspices and leadership of the UN, and only with prior Dáil approval. We believe that there should be no use of Irish airports, airspace, seaports, or territorial waters for preparation for war or other armed conflict by foreign powers. We also want an end to Irish involvement in the arms trade and profit from war. The situation, which currently exists at Shannon, is a fundamental attack on Irish neutrality, which must be defended vigorously.

All Ireland position

As an all Ireland party, Sinn Féin believes that our approach to the EU can only be all-Ireland based. Our experiences as an all-Ireland party are invaluable for the debate on Europe. For example, our arguments against the militarisation of the EU, stem from our experience of the militarism that exists in many forms on the island. Citizens in the six counties continue to live under a military occupation. The British army, (a member of NATO) is complicit in the state sanctioned murder of citizens in the north of this country. So people on this island are well aware of the activities of members of NATO. The EU is presently dominated by the NATOo states, but must not become like that armed body and must also not continue to develop as a NATO surrogate. Sinn Fein is running an all-Ireland team in the upcoming EU elections, and we will be using the opportunities afforded to us in that campaign to clearly explain, why we don't want an EU that is a military or economic superpower.

Conclusion

When I began to prepare for this debate, I started to think about George Orwell's novel 1984, which envisaged the world divided up into 3 Cold-War-like blocs. I look at the world today and I can see an existing superpower and emerging superpowers, I can see the world divided into blocs based on culture, politics and economics. The EU is becoming one of the more dangerous blocs. At the moment it is looking at moving even closer to a Big Brother style state, with its plans for citizen data bases, through iris scans, and fingerprinting. Is that what you want the EU to become?

As I have already mentioned, a militarised EU is a self- serving tool of those who want the EU to be a two-speed, two-tier institution with a capacity for military intervention toimpose its will. The recent private and exclusive tri lateral summits attended by the British, French and Germans are concrete proof of this.

I believe that the EU could play a constructive role on the global stage. The EU could use its collective voice and influence to promote a positive global and social justice agenda involving a return to UN primacy. This is the Sinn Féin vision for what the EU should be.

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Sinn Féin EU candidate for Leinster, John Dwyer, has said that while the new insurance hotline may cut down the number of fraudulent claims, it is not the answer to the problems with the insurance industry in this state.

Reports today say that the hotline has received more than 3,000 calls resulting in 1,500 cases of alleged fraud, in the last 12 months. However Mr Dwyer said that the hotline was an attempt to convince the public that fraudulent claims are "the only reason for the extortionate insurance costs in Ireland," and that it "puts an unfair onus on the public to deal with a problem that is not of their making."

Mr Dwyer said:

"The initiatives being introduced to deal with the problems in the insurance industry in Ireland are severely lacking in both capability and foresight. The 'fraud hotline' may be reducing the number of false claims being taken, but it is not the answer to the problem. Another measure taken by the government, the 'Civil Liability Bill (2004)', which reduces the time limit for bringing personal injuries claims from three years to one, is also completely unreasonable -- taking no account of legitimate injuries which may surface at a later date.

"There are several reasons why insurance costs are out of control in this state. The lack of competition, often due to the refusal of the industry to share cost information with 'outsiders' and the astronomical legal costs, which are often based on compensation payments and average at 39.5%, are just two of them.

"The insurance industry is ten times more profitable in absolute terms than its largest counterpart in Britain. We need a wide-ranging reform of the ways legal fees are set and tough regulations placed on the insurance industry. Pay-out in claims also have to be reduced. Health and safety authority staff need to be doubled to prevent accidents from taking place. The Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authorities, and also the government, should be able to deal with this.

"The hotline is one way to cut down claims, but it is also an attempt to convince the public that fraudulent claims are the only reason for the extortionate insurance costs in Ireland. It is putting an unfair onus on the public to deal with a problem that is not of their making." ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Employment, Arthur Morgan T.D. has branded the comments by An Tánaiste this morning that her department will give new work permits to immigrants who are being exploited by their current employer as "meaningless".

Deputy Morgan said

"The comments by an The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Mary Harney, that her Department will give new work permits to any immigrants who are being exploited by their current employer in this State are meaningless and insincere.

"If Mary Harney is at all serious about stopping exploitation of migrant workers she would introduce as a matter of urgency legislation to allow the work permit to be held by the employee rather than the employer. The current system whereby workers are tied to one employer results in migrant workers being in a position akin to bonded laborers. Her suggestion that exploited workers can simply come to her Department in an ad hoc fashion if they are being exploited is unrealistic and unworkable and shows that An Tanaiste has no understanding of the position exploited workers find themselves in.

"In light of her consistent rejection of calls for such a legislative change as I have just mentioned, her apparent concern for the rights and welfare of migrant workers rings very hollow.

"I would challenge An Tánaiste to cease defending a system that facilitates exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers" ENDS

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Sinn Féin's Equality and Human Rights spokesperson, South Down MLA Caitríona Ruane has slammed the Electoral registration legislation which, she said "is discriminating against the poorest and most vulnerable sections of our society."

Ms Ruane said:

"Sinn Féin recently met with the Equality Commission. Following our meeting they agreed to investigate what we consider is a breach of the NIO's equality duties with respect to electoral registration.

"We have raised this issue with the British and Irish governments.

"The NIO's equality impact assessment has identified clear disparities and disadvantage arising from the existing electoral registration laws. And yet they refuse to address the issue.

"Research by the Electoral Commission has shown that, the highest decline in electoral registration occurred in the top 20 most deprived wards of which 69% are catholic and 27% are protestant.

"In our view those who supported this legislation must look to the effect it is having, not just in terms of denying large numbers of people their right to vote, but in the categories of people being affected: the poorest and most vulnerable within our community, the young, the old, those with disabilities and ethnic minorities.

"The adverse pattern emerging across the North is that this legislation is producing a two-tier system whereby affluent areas are returning high registration uptake and the poorest areas, mostly in deprived catholic and protestant wards, are alarmingly low." ENDS

Note to Editors: Of the top ten wards in Belfast with the largest percentage decline in registration, nine are catholic: Falls, Clonard, Twinbrook, Whiterock, Poleglass, Colin Glen, Clencolin, Kilwee, Ardoyne. The Protestant wards of Coole and Dunanney have the next highest decline in registration.

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