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


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In a reaction to the restoration from noon today, Thursday 6th January, of Medical On-Call status at Monaghan General Hospital, Sinn Féin Dáil Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin described the development as "an important but insufficient step to address and assuage the needs and real fears of the people of Co. Monaghan regarding acute services at Monaghan General Hospital."

The Sinn Féin Dáil Leader and Health Spokesperson pointed to three critical deficiencies in the Health Services Executive decision.

"There remains a complete blockade against all accident related cases being brought to Monaghan by ambulance despite the fact that we have an excellent consultant surgeon and support locums in situ. Only selective elective surgery can be carried out at Monaghan. In my view this is a disgrace and a failure on the part of the bureaucrats in the HSE and other influences to appreciate and utilise to the full the skills and dedication of the three consultant surgeons at Monaghan General Hospital.

"Futhermore only adult medical cases will now be brought to Monaghan General by ambulance. Only my wife and I and our older children can now access Monaghan in a Medical emergency by ambulance. For our younger children there remains a ban on accessing their local hospital and nearest facility, forcing all our non-adult children to face the long journey, and in all conditions, to distant hospital sites. This too is totally unacceptable.

"And finally, an expectant mother in labour remains barred from our hospital which to me is one of the most shameful legacies of the North Eastern Health Board now, at least in name, shelved with the history books.

"Only a complete restoration of all services removed from Monaghan General Hospital and a renewed and demonstrated commitment to the development of these services will meet the needs and address the fears of the people of Co. Monaghan‰ concluded Deputy Ó Caoláin." ENDS

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Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP has told the two governments that Sinn Féin "will not countenance any attempt by the DUP, or by any one else, to demonise and criminalise this party."

Mr. Adams was responding to unfounded accusations, mainly from the DUP politicians, attacking Sinn Féin and seeking to link the party to politically motivated and unsubstantiated allegations of IRA involvement in the Northern Bank robbery.

Mr. Adams said:

"Republicans made a huge effort last year to achieve a comprehensive agreement which would resolve all the outstanding issues in the peace process.

When this failed the Sinn Féin leadership did not give up. We continued to work right up to Christmas to plot a course forward with the two governments.

Now it looks like the ground is being laid to thwart these efforts. The two governments need to think long and hard about whose agenda is being served by accusations, mainly from the DUP, attacking Sinn Féin and seeking to link our party to allegations of IRA involvement in the Northern Bank robbery.

From the beginning I held the view that the IRA was not involved in that robbery. The IRA has said it wasn‚t involved. I believe that to be the case.

In recent weeks we have witnessed a brazen attempt to undermine the peace process by those elements of the British system - the securocrats - who have opposed the peace process since its inception, and in particular the republican contribution to it.

It is obvious that the series of raids, house searches and confiscation of property directed at republican activists, that have taken place in recent weeks, have had nothing to do with tracking down those responsible for the bank robbery. Instead this has been a contrivance aimed at pointing the finger of guilt at republicans ˆ even in the absence of any evidence.

No one should doubt the significant damage done to all of this by these raids, by the conduct of the PSNI, and by the political opportunism of some.

In this the enemies of the process have been aided by irresponsible reporting by some sections of the media and scurrilous and opportunistic attacks on Sinn Féin by political opponents.

Peter Robinson‚s accusation of duplicity by the Sinn Féin negotiating team is outrageous and I reject it. Mr. Robinson should review the DUPs conduct in the recent talks before making unsubstantiated charges.

I have spoken to the British and Irish governments. I told both that Sinn Féin will not countenance any attempt by the DUP, or by the governments or by any one else, to demonise and criminalise this party.

Sinn Féin has a political mandate achieved at the ballot box. We will resist any attempt to marginalise, criminalise this party. The campaigns to smash Sinn Féin all failed. Sinn Féin represents the majority of nationalists in the north. The DUP needs to come to terms with this political reality." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health spokesperson and Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has said that it is now up to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children Mary Harney to intervene to ensure that recommended changes in the surgical unit at Cavan General Hospital are made as a matter of urgency. Commenting on the latest report on the Hospital from the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI), Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"It is a scandal that the RCSI has had to make the same recommendation nine months following the report of Mr. Finbar Lennon of last March. Both reports recommend the ring-fencing of beds for surgery at the hospital but this has not happened. We need to see this recommendation implemented and with extra beds provided to cater for medical patients.

"I welcome the RCSI's call for three new permanent consultant surgeons to be appointed and for an end to the Cavan surgical unit's dependence on locums. But these appointments should not be at the expense of surgery at Monaghan General Hospital where there is unquestionably an ample caseload to justify the permanent presence of three consultant surgeons as part of the overall configuration of surgical cover at both hospital sites.

"The North Eastern Health Board has failed to implement the changes needed a Cavan General, compounding the distress of displaced Monaghan patients and the general Cavan population who depend in the main on Cavan General for their emergency and elective surgical needs. It is now time for the Minister for Health and Children to intervene directly to ensure that these recommendations are implemented and the needs of Monaghan General Hospital are confirmed." ENDS

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Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin has urged the two governments to speedily re-focus their efforts to build upon the progress already achieved last year and see the job of achieving a deal completed.

Mr McLaughlin said:

" Sinn Féin are eager to get back down to the business of seeing a deal done and the progress made last year built upon. This can only happen on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

" Sinn Féin are not interested in long fingering this process until after elections. We believe that the job can be completed and completed quickly if the necessary political will is there.

" It is therefore important that the two governments speedily re-engage with all of the parties as we seek to find a way forward and see the political institutions re-established and the other outstanding matters implemented. If the DUP are not up for this challenge then the process of change must move ahead without them." ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Social and Community Affairs, Seán Crowe TD today said, "welfare recipients should not be punished for a mistake made by the Department of Social and Family Affairs", after learning that 47,000 welfare recipients will not receive payments this week.

Speaking in Dublin today he said:

"Due to a mistake last week whereby welfare recipients were paid twice the normal rate, some 47,000 welfare recipients will not receive payment this week.

"Many of these recipients genuinely believed that this extra money was a Christmas bonus and have already spent it. This time of year is traditionally a time of financial difficulty for many people, especially those in receipt of welfare payments and it is unfair to ask them to pay back the whole sum of the money in one payment when this payment reflects the sum of their total income for the week. It is unrealistic for Minister Brennan to expect these people to cope with absolutely no income in one of the toughest weeks of the year.

"It is understandable that the Department want to rectify this mistake but a fairer method of repayment should be implemented. To do this the Department must first of all make full payments to all recipients this week and then begin a process of consultation with representatives of these people such as Age Action Ireland, The Carers Association and others to work out a fair method of repayment that will have the least possible impact on their lives.

"The blame for this mistake clearly lies at the door of the Department and the bottom line is that welfare recipients should not be punished for a mistake made by the Department of Social and Family Affairs." ENDS

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Sinn Féin MEP for Dublin Mary Lou McDonald has this morning expressed her concern that over 26 billion euros of military related products have been exported to dozens of countries since 1997.

Figures released by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has shown that Irish companies made a profit of 26.7 million euros last year alone in direct military sales. Ms McDonald said that 'Ireland is complicit in an industry obsessed with profit and seemingly unconcerned where many of these arms are ending up'.

Speaking this morning Ms McDonald said:

"The figures released by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment have reinforced the notion that the international arms trade is a very successful and profitable business. That over 26 billion euros of military related products have been exported to dozens of countries since 1997 exposes the sheer scale of this flourishing industry in Ireland.

"Let us be clear, the international arms trade has led to untold devastation for many people, particularly in the developing world with a never ending cycle of poverty and suffering. Greedy and unscrupulous people are profiting from the export of military hardware and components. Sinn Féin wants to see tighter controls in both the production and the export of arms.

"I also want to reiterate my calls for a more effective EU Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers and the adoption of an international Arms Trade Treaty to prevent EU export of arms where they contribute to violations of human rights. The EU Code of Conduct must be strengthened immediately, to prevent further abuses of human rights, especially in countries with questionable human rights records. Recent reports have shown that loopholes in the Code of Conduct have allowed weapons to be supplied to regimes such as China, Burma and Malaysia in this last year.

"Sinn Féin is working towards both a demilitarised Ireland and European Union, we will continue to make this a priority in 2005." ENDS

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Sinn Fein Mid Ulster MP Martin McGuinness speaking after meeting the Keightley family in Cookstown before some members left for Thailand to search for their missing brother Conor has said that the Tsunami disaster requires a long-term response.

Mr McGuinness said:

"2004 saw many catastrophes including earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, storms and floods. In a part of the world used to rain we can be thankful that the exceptional floods witnessed in Derry last year only resulted in limited damage to homes and businesses. Nothing we witnessed during the year prepared us for one of the planet's worst catastrophes. I witnessed first hand the devastation brought to families directly affected by this disaster when I visited the Keightley family in Cookstown before some members left for Thailand to search for their missing brother Conor. My prayers and best wishes go with them.

"The Tsunami on St. Stephens Day struck Asia with such power that within minutes, almost 200,000 people died and millions of people's lives have been destroyed. Aid agencies are predicting that its effects will be felt for many years to come. The majority of people in the countries hardest hit, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Indonesia, live in dire poverty. An area where millions die each year from preventable causes such as measles and malnutrition demands urgent action on debt cancellation.

"Whatever the reason this catastrophe has focused our attention on our increasingly unpredictable climate. There is mounting evidence of the need to make the switch from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy. Ecologists have been telling world leaders for years that climate change associated with global warming is a disaster waiting to happen. Few governments were listening.

"The governments of the first world have known for many years that the po

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Sinn Féin MEP and former Health Minister in the Six County Assembly, Bairbre de Brún, has today reiterated her calls for a complete smoking ban to be implemented in all work places. Ms de Brún said that 2005 should be 'remembered as the year smoking was finally eradicated from our places of work'.

Ms de Brún's comments came in the wake of a British Government decision to implement a smoking ban in all of its departments across the Six Counties.

Speaking today Ms de Brún said:

"I want to welcome this very positive measure towards making the workplace a smoke free environment. This ban should become the catalyst for a complete ban on smoking in the workplace. Whilst smokers in the Civil Service had to use designated smoking rooms, the decision to remove these rooms is a major step towards changing mindsets in regards to smoking.

"Let us be strident and proactive in our calls for a smoking ban in workplaces across the 6 counties. The very negative effects of smoking are undeniable and are reinforced by innumerable medical experts. We know that smoking is harmful to our collective health and we know that the smoking ban in the 26 counties has been a success. I am calling upon Angela Smyth to conclude the consultation process on the issue as speedily as possible and implement a ban in the face of such irrefutable evidence.

"My hope is that 2005 will be remembered as the year smoking was finally eradicated from our places of work, as we move towards a more health conscious society. Sinn Féin will continue to press for this in the coming year." ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on the Environment, Arthur Morgan TD, has strongly criticised the decision of the Cabinet today to agree to change retail and planning guidelines so as to allow Swedish furniture giant IKEA open an outlet several times larger than current maximum permitted.

Deputy Morgan said, "It is not only incredible but absolutely unacceptable that Government retail and planning policy should be dictated by a single furniture retailer. This is one of the most craven decisions made by this Government and represents a worrying trend whereby large corporations are now calling the shots in terms of policy direction.

"Minister Roche may try and dress it up in the language of 'consumer rights' and claim there are restrictions to accompany the new guidelines but the reality is this decision was taken by a weak Government and even weaker Minister because they crumbled in the face of intense pressure from IKEA.

"This decision will represent the thin end of the wedge and will ultimately allow the likes of WalMart, with its notorious and appalling employer record, enter the Irish market. Slavishly following the US model of building massive out of town retail/warehouse outlets will have a detrimental effect not only on smaller and indigenous retailers, who have abided by the current guidelines, but will also have a massive effect on local communities and the environment.

"Ballymun does not need 500 minimum-wage retail jobs in a single outlet, which in any case, will be taken from other parts of the city, it needs sustainable and diverse employment opportunities. Rather than claiming this as a success it is a failure of Government policy. Putting all your eggs in one basket is no solution to the decades of neglect suffered by the people of Ballymun." ENDS

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Sinn Fein Councillor for North Belfast, David Kennedy, will at tonight's full meeting of Belfast City Council, raise a motion asking Belfast City Council to condemn the practice of the detention of asylum seekers in Prison facilities. Currently asylum seekers are held at Maghaberry, Crumlin Road and Hydebank prisons.

Speaking today Cllr Kennedy said:

"The image of Belfast, as the only city on the islands of Britain and Ireland where the practice of detaining asylum seekers in prison facilities is conducted leaves Belfast in a challenging position and open to international criticism. The practice is immoral and locking asylum seekers in prison is a disgraceful practice which clearly breaches human rights standards and must be ended.

"Sinn Fein have already, following a visit to the Crumlin Road facility, raised our concerns over the health and welfare of those detained.

"Tonight Sinn Fein will be asking Belfast City Council to join with the wide range of groups who stand in opposition to this practice including the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Amnesty International and all four of the main churches in the north to name but a few."

"I am also calling for the immediate release of those currently being detained and for the British government to review both its draconian immigration policies and the further detention and criminalisation of asylum seekers." ENDS

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the murder of Pat Finucane by the British government highlights their resistance to the demand for truth.

"I would urge anyone who believes that they have suffered discrimination at the hands of the state in housing, healthcare, education or employment or has lost loved ones or been injured as a result of state action to make full use of this legislation to test the willingness of the British government and NIO to abandon its policies of secrecy in favour of a genuine new beginning and a culture of accountability." ENDS

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Commenting on media reports of what the forthcoming Government Cancer Care strategy will contain, Sinn Féin Health spokesperson Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said the strategy was long overdue. He said that unless it provided real cover for the regions it would not be a viable strategy.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"The Government's so-called network of radiotherapy units in Dublin, Cork and Galway does not provide adequate cover on a regional basis. The two units

promised for Dublin have not yet materialised, apparently due to fierce competition between hospitals wishing to have the units based on their sites. One of these units will have to cater for the entire North Eastern region. If the forthcoming overall cancer care strategy is to operate on the same basis, this region will lose out yet again and patients will have to travel excessive distances for treatment." ENDS

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Speaking after receiving a number of complaints from constituents, West Belfast Sinn Féin MLA Michael Ferguson has hit out at the increased covert British forces activity in the Andersonstown area which has taken place over the past number of weeks.

The West Belfast MLA said,

" Over the past number of weeks there has been a marked increase in British covert activity in the Andersonstown area. I have received a number of complaints from constituents who have seen people taking photographs of them from Andersonstown Barracks while they have been coming and going from local businesses.

"There have also been a number of sightings of people in unmarked cars taking photographs of residents going about their daily business.

" This type of activity points clearly to the British covert activity. It is unacceptable that almost 7 years from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement we still have British forces spying on the people of West Belfast. It is particularly worrying given the history of collusion between the British State forces and unionist death squads".

" Clearly there are those within the British establishment who are still operating to a securocrat agenda. Almost seven years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement not only has the British government failed to publish its timetable for demilitarisation it now appears that they are giving their consent to an increase in military activity against the people of West Belfast. This is unacceptable". ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD for Louth and Sinn Féin spokesperson for Trade and Enterprise as well as Environment, Arthur Morgan, has accused the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche of "spouting complete and utter nonsense". Deputy Morgan was responding to criticism from the Minster of Sinn Féin's position in relation to the proposal to change the retail and planning guidelines, which would allow for Swedish furniture giant IKEA to open an massive retail/warehouse in north Dublin.

Deputy Morgan said, "Dick Roche is spouting complete and utter nonsense. Lets be very clear, Sinn Féin is not opposed to IKEA per se. If they stick to within the current retail and planning guidelines then they would be a very welcome addition to the Irish market in terms of furniture retail. However, Sinn Féin is opposed to their bullying and to the craven attitude it has fostered within the Government.

"What Ballymun needs is not one giant superstore, offering minimum wage retail jobs, but rather an integrated government backed and supported employment drive to bring a diverse range of businesses and industries to the Ballymun area. IKEA could be part of it if they wish, once they stick to within the current sensible guidelines.

"The Minister should stop deluding himself when he says that this isn't about IKEA. This is specifically about IKEA and not so-called 'consumer rights'. IKEA is the only reason changes are being considered to current laws.

"The retail and planning guidelines were brought in to serve a specific purpose and they have done that well to date. Both indigenous and international companies have benefited from them ? and in fact so too have consumers by the provision of a more diverse range of companies operating. With one giant superstore operating on the main Dublin commuter belt it is obvious smaller retailers will go to the wall, as has been the international experience, and instead of new jobs being created you will just have a migration of labour within the Dublin region. Dick Roche's arguments are nonsensical and just don't stand up to scrutiny." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Justice spokesperson, Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has said, "The Special Criminal Court needs to be closed down and not expanded." Deputy Ó Snodaigh was reacting to news today that Justice Minister Michael McDowell plans to establish a second Special Criminal Court.

Speaking this afternoon the Dublin South Central TD said, "The Special Criminal Court is founded on draconian "emergency" legislation, which is wide open to abuse and which fundamentally undermines a persons civil rights.

"Everybody should be entitled to a fair trial. However, the Special Criminal Court does not provide that, especially when a person can be convicted on the word of a Garda or on undisclosed or secret evidence. The Special Criminal Court and the way it works makes a mockery of the whole notion of justice, just as the Diplock Courts did in the Six Counties.

"Sinn Féin has consistently raised the issue of emergency powers and indeed the abuse of them. We are now ten years into the peace process and while we have seen some progress on the issue of criminal justice in the north we have seen absolutely nothing in the south. In fact the Minister for Justice is going backwards with this issue rather than forwards. The Special Criminal Court needs to be closed down and not expanded." ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD, Seán Crowe has today said that the detention of non-nationals awaiting deportation was "effectively internment without trial" and "completely unjustified".

Speaking in Dublin this morning Deputy Crowe said: "The Irish Prison Service's latest annual report, published today makes for alarming reading. It shows that one-quarter of all people jailed in Ireland in 2003 were non-nationals. The vast majority of these were detained under immigration laws and were awaiting deportation. This is completely unjustified and is effectively internment without trial.

"Most immigrants come to Ireland in search of a better life for themselves and their families. The reaction of the Government and some elements of the media have been to portray them as spongers, criminals and welfare cheats. They are not criminals and have never been convicted of any criminal offence. Therefore they should not be held in criminal institutions.

"Sinn Féin believes that we should embrace our growing diversity as a source of strength, opportunity and economic dynamism. To do this we must begin by opposing racism, discrimination and intolerance of any kind, wherever it occurs. We must challenge the stigmatisation of non-nationals and of Irish citizens with non-national parents. The discriminatory and criminalisation policies of this Government against non-nationals must come to an end." ENDS

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Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún has today confirmed that EU Commissioner for Regional Policy Danuta Hubner will visit Ireland in the course of 2005. Ms de Brún said that she was very much looking forward to discussing with Commissioner Hubner 'the contribution of EU Regional Policy to all-Ireland planning and policy implementation and the plan for future funding when PEACE II expires in 2006'.

Ms de Brún had written to the Commissioner, saying "This would be a good time for you to visit the North of Ireland to see the tremendous benefits that have flowed from EU support for peace building through the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and the contribution to the International Fund for Ireland.

I hope you will find time to meet with me and give strong consideration for a visit to the North of Ireland in 2005."

In a letter to Bairbre de Brún MEP, Commissioner Hubner confirmed that they would meet, welcomed the fact that it had been possible to secure the extension of funding for PEACE II to 2006, albeit less than the Commission had hoped for, and said "I certainly intend to visit the region during the course of 2005".

Speaking this afternoon, Ms de Brún said:

"I would be delighted to welcome EU Commissioner for Regional Policy to Ireland. Sinn Féin recognises and commends European Union support for the PEACE programme and the contribution it has made towards peace building throughout the island but particularly in the 6 counties and border regions.

"It is important that Commissioner Hubner is able to see the very real benefits of continued PEACE funding for herself, and the impact upon local communities. This funding is vitally important if we are to help promote national reconciliation, social inclusion and peace building in Ireland.

2005 is an important year in terms of decisions about any possible further support and a visit by the Commissioner will demonstrate that this programme is not only worthy but also has practical impact on the ground. This is why I wrote to Commissioner Hubner asking her to come.

"I will also discuss future funding with Commissioner Hubner when I meet with her in Brussels in the New Year, as the extension to PEACE II will expire in 2006. I will be emphasising the importance of sustained EU support through a PEACE III programme." ENDS

Editors note:

Ms de Brún is a member of the European Parliament Committee on Regional Development.

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Michelle Gildernew MP For Fermanagh and South Tyrone delighted to see so many shoppers from the 26 counties in northern shopping centres such as Enniskillen and Newry.

Ms Gildernew said:

"We've just seen a bumper few weeks of shopping in places like Enniskillen and Newry and many shoppers coming to shop here are from Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, with other customers travelling from as far as Longford, Roscommon and Mayo.

"Businesses in Enniskillen have been especially forward thinking in welcoming the Euro and have reaped the dividends but it is time that for the benefit of customers and the business community that our roads infrastructure to the 26 counties was improved.

"For example, while the road from Enniskillen to Blacklion, in County Cavan is only 12 miles or so in places it is like a cork screw and in adverse weather conditions particularly dangerous. The Blacklion road is part of the main road from Sligo and it needs to be greatly improved. Nor is the road from either Ballyshannon or Monaghan any better and I could name a dozen other places, not very far in distance from Enniskillen that can only be reached by poor, treacherous roads. Authorities in the 26 counties also need to start upgrading their roads, for the good of all the citizens on this island.

"Enniskillen is a great town that has never looked better, in some shops records have been broken and that is good for the town and good for the county. As the MP for the area I would just like to extend a Céad Mile Fáilte to all visitors to the town." ENDS

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Sinn Féin health spokesperson, Cllr John O'Dowd MLA, has accused the NIO health minister Angela Smith of hypocrisy over her attitude towards the impact of smoking on public health.

"In the course of her announcement today, launching a twenty year strategy for health and social services in the Six Counties, Angela Smith stated that it was time to stop looking over one's shoulder and take action to protect the population from the effects of second-hand smoke. Such sentiments would

indeed be praiseworthy were it not for the fact that the minister herself is looking over her own shoulder towards her colleague John Reid in England.

"Her consultation proposals on this issue merely mirror a survey conducted in

England earlier this year. In a written response to me on this matter dated 28th October 2004, Angela Smith stated, "the governments proposals for addressing smoking in Public places will be set out in a white paper". She also added that it was intended to repeat that survey around the end of the year.

"The NIO health minister is clearly guilty of hypocrisy on this issue. On one hand, Angela Smith is clearly failing to grasp the urgent need for the introduction of proper preventative legislation by continuing to look over her shoulder at Downing Street's attitude, while on the other, she acknowledges that the evidence of health risks from second-hand smoke is incontrovertible and that exposure to second hand-smoke increases the chance of non-smokers contracting lung cancer and heart disease by 25%.

"Figures released yesterday detailing health inequalities in the North demonstrate quite conclusively that those living in deprived areas of the Six Counties are almost 60% more likely to contract lung cancer and will die earlier than those living in more affluent areas. This frightening statistic is a damning indictment of John Reid's infamous statement that smoking was one of the few pleasures, which unemployed and less well off people could afford - a tatement that Angela Smith has never publicly refuted. I am sure that many of these people would prefer to enjoy a full and healthy lifestyle with their families rather than face the prospect of contracting prolonged ill health or premature death.

"Rather than engage in a consultation exercise designed to postpone the inevitable, Angela Smith should act now and introduce a ban on smoking in the workplace and all enclosed public places immediately." ENDS

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Sinn Féin health spokesperson Cllr John O'Dowd MLA has expressed concern over the increased levels of prescription of anti-depressant drugs, particularly Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's).

Cllr O'Dowd said:

"Figures supplied to me today by the NIO health minister Angela Smith show that the level of prescriptions for these types of drugs has increased dramatically in the Six Counties in recent years. In 1999, a total of 467,555 SSRI prescription items were dispensed in the North. By the end of 2003, this figure had reached 694,096 items. These figures do not include prescriptions issued and dispensed in a hospital setting or private prescriptions.

"Earlier this month, new guidelines governing the use and prescription of anti-depressant drugs were issued by NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence). There has been widespread concern about the increased use of SSRI's and in particular the widespread of practice of issuing repeat prescriptions. The addictive nature of these drugs is demonstrated by the immense difficulties experienced by many people trying to stop using the drugs.

"However, the new clinical guidelines issued earlier this month will be of little use on their own unless the government demonstrates a willingness to increase the levels of funding for the provision of additional mental health practitioners and counselling services to assist those people suffering from clinical depression.

"The need for this additional funding is extremely urgent given that a number of health boards and trusts across the North are already under pressure to review their service planning due to the inadequate levels of funding for such services being made available under the British government's budget for the Six Counties which was published yesterday." ENDS

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