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Former Chairperson of the Assembly Finance and Personnel Committee, Mid Ulster MLA Francie Molloy has expressed concern that the urgent need for the review into local government and the review of public administration has been thrown into disarray by the suspension of the political institutions.

Mr Molloy said:

"There is a real and urgent need to press ahead with the review of local government and the review of public administration. My concern is that these two crucial reviews have been thrown into total disarray and that an already lengthy process will be further delayed, possibly by another 12 months.

"Without doubt there are too many layers of bureaucracy across all levels of government and there are far too many powers delegated to unaccountable quangos. We need to challenge these poor models of democratic accountability and put in place effective layers of government that allow full participation, clear accountability and deliver both value for money and good government that meets the needs of our society.

"Powers were stripped away from local government because of the corruption and political bankruptcy and bigoted discrimination of unionism. We need to ensure that the disease of quangoism and cronyism is cut out of governance." ENDS

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Speaking from the St. Patrick's Day Parade in San Francisco where he was joined by the Grand Marshal, Mayor Willie Brown, Sinn Féin Chief negotiator Martin McGuinness MP commenting on the peace process said that while progress has been made in the current negotiations substantive gaps do remain on important issues.

" In the current phase of negotiations we have made substantial progress across all of the issues, including:-

  • New Legislation on Criminal Justice
  • Demilitarisation
  • Equality
  • Human Rights
  • Irish Language Rights

" However substantive gaps do remain on important issues. Discussions are continuing with the two governments and the other parties in a sustained effort to close these gaps. This is very much work in progress.

" But one point of serious concern centers on the Unionist demand for sanctions which are clearly outside the terms of the Agreement and which are clearly aimed at Sinn Féin.

" Sinn Féin's participation in the political institutions is by virtue of our electoral mandate. We have a right to represent our voters and our voters have a right to be represented by us. None of this can be subject to the whims of David Trimble.

" Either there is a democratic imperative to the peace process or there is not. Sinn Féin believe that the mandates of all the parties and the electoral rights of all citizens must be respected and upheld. There can be no half way house. The Good Friday Agreement must be upheld in full." ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe this morning called on people throughout Dublin to attend a solidarity protest at the Department of Foreign Affairs at 2.30pm tomorrow, Saturday 15th March, calling for the release of three Irishmen currently being detained in Colombia.

Deputy Crowe said:

"Political interference in the trial has been getting steadily worse with highly publicised statements from the military and senior politicians, including Colombian President Ureba saying that the men are guilty. This is a complete violation of the presumption of innocent until proven guilty and gross political interference in an already contaminated process.

"I have attended two sessions of this trial as part of an international team of observers and the only evidence presented by the prosecution has been based on pure fantasy, speculation and half-truths. The proceedings have descended into complete farce and I firmly believe that there is absolutely no possibility of Jim Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly getting a fair trial. And with every day that passes the three men's lives are in more danger.

"I am calling on the people of Dublin to come out tomorrow in support of the campaign to bring the men back home to Ireland."ENDS

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Sinn Féin Assembly member for West Belfast Bairbre de Brún has said that the
outcome of the survey of lawyers by the Police Ombudsman's Office must be
taken seriously.

Ms de Brún said:

"Threats to lawyers emanating from a police force would be a matter of grave
concern in any country. It must of even greater concern in a country that
has seen the assassination of two leading human rights lawyers.

"The outcome of this survey must be taken seriously

"Sinn Féin has put forward proposals to deal with the deficit of proper
policing here, including proposals to ensure that lawyers are treated with
due respect."

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on International Affairs, Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has accused the Taoiseach of "hiding behind a veil of secrecy" in relation to the war on Iraq. Deputy Ó Snodaigh made his comments after the Taoiseach in the Dáil today yet again refused to say what action the Government would take if the US acted without a UN mandate. The Dublin South Central TD also appealed to Government backbenchers to "show some guts" and take the lead from members of the British Labour Party who have been openly critical of the stance taken by their Prime Minister.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh said:

"I listened today with disbelief as the Taoiseach once again sought to avoid giving the Dáil and the people of this state any indication of his intentions in regard to the imminent war on Iraq. This is a matter of both national and international importance. The government must have an opinion on it. I don't believe they have no opinion and wonder if it isn't a case that this Government is hiding behind a veil of secrecy to avoid facing the people on this issue. Is this what we are to continue to expect in the context ofeople of Ireland have a right to know what the Irish Governments position is. It is no longer

acceptable for the Taoiseach to use the excuse of waiting for the outcome of the UN vote. It is already abundantly clear that the vote wie or it doesn't - it's that simple.

"Today in the Dáil instead of Nero fiddling while Rome burned it was the Taoiseach waffling before Baghdad burns.

"I would call on the many Fianna Fáil backbenchers who are clearly uneasy about this Governments stance on the war to show some guts and take a lead from the members of the Labour Party in Britain who have been openly critical of their Prime Minister and may yet bring the man to his senses." ENDS

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Speaking on the Labour Party's Freedom on Information (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill in the Dáil today Sinn Féin group leader Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said "the Government is motivated in its actions by fear of embarrassment over decisions taken at Cabinet meetings during the term of the 28th Dáil".

He also said the "lack of respect for open and democratic government was highlighted by the absence of the Minister and Junior Minister at the Department of Finance from the Houses of the Oireachtas" during the week when the proposed amendments were being discussed.

He went on say that he would "strongly caution against any changes which would restrict the scope of the Freedom on Information Act." ENDS

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"I welcome the introduction by the Labour Party of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) (No.3) Bill 2003.

"I would like to commence with a couple of brief quotations from the Debate which took place in this House in March of 1997 on the passage of the Freedom of Information Act 1997:

  • "Governments tend to preserve their interests and have gone to enormous lengths to retain information, the release of which would have prejudiced their being in Government"

"The presumption that everything is required to be secret unless proved to the contrary is the single greatest obstacle to openness under this Government"

  • "I can envisage the Government of the day or the public body which has possession of certain information being determined to plead the public interest in order to withhold information"

"Those were the words of three deputies, in this order, Deputy Liz O'Donnell, Deputy Michael Woods and Deputy Jim McDaid who are now members of a Government which is seeking to emasculate the same Freedom of Information Act.

"Freedom of Information legislation plays an important role in the promotion of openness, transparency and accountability in government. This in turn leads to an improved system of public administration. Our freedom of information legislation has been acknowledged internationally as an example of best practice.

"The proposed Government amendment to the Freedom of Information Act will be a considerable setback for participatory democracy involving active citizenship.

"The Government has failed to engage in any meaningful consultation in its review of the Freedom of Information Act. The Information Commissioner was not consulted, the Government's own FOI advisory groups were not consulted nor were many other interested groups such as the NUJ, the opposition parties or the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

"The review process, which commenced on the re-election of the current Government, was carried out in a secretive manner. It was not an independent review, rather it was carried out by a group in whose interest it is to restrict the freedom of information legislation.

"The reasons put forward to justify the introduction of this Bill are not credible. The explanation given by the Taoiseach recently that the five year rule was impractical and dangerous because of sensitive negotiations relating to the peace process was misleading insofar as there is a separate amendment in the act (Section 24) relating to the North which specifically prevents disclosure of records where their release could adversely affect matters relating to the Peace Process.

"I would ask the Government to take on board the criticism made by the Information Commissioner in his report, published yesterday, where he expresses his view that the amendments proposed by the Government "could create serious legal and other problems in the future and which have the potential to result in costly litigation" and the view of other groups, such as the Irish Council of Civil Liberties who have expressed their opposition to the proposed amendments.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties reacted to the Government's proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act saying that they had "damaged the way the Government does its business" and went on to describe these moves as "indefensible".

"There are a number of proposals contained within the government's Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill which I find particularly worrying. These are:

  • Section 19 - That papers of committees of officials will be defined as Government papers which could be exempted from release. This to be given effect by substituting for the definition of "Government", currently contained in section 19(6), what the Information Commissioner has described as "A much more far-reaching and constitutionally unrecognisable definition". This would include within the definition of Government a committee of unelected officials.
  • Section 20 - The provision allowing secretaries-generals of departmy General will be able to certify a record of whatever nature relating to the deliberative process of any Department whereas a Minister may declare a record exempt only if he or she is convinced that the record concerned is of sufficient sensitivity or seriousness to justify doing so.
    • The exemption for letters between Ministers relating to matters before Cabinet
    • The exemption for records held by a State body relating to tribunals of inquiry
    • The extension on the exemption of Cabinet records from 5 years to 10 years.

    "The five-year limit for Cabinet records corresponds with the maximum life span of government which means that records relating to a government currently in power could not become subject to disclosure under the current legislation. "The provision of the act for the "five-year rule" was due to commence from April 1st this year, and this government because of its second term in office was due to be affected by it. It is my strong suspicion that the Government is motivated in its actions by fear of embarrassment over decisions taken at Cabinet meetings during the term of the 28th Dáil. Why else did this review commence just two weeks after the formation of the new cabinet. Is there sensitive material pertaining to the honey deal between Minister Woods and the representatives of the religious institutions that this Taoiseach wants to keep under wraps?

    "The lack of respect for open and democratic government which is seen in the Government's proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act is further highlighted by the absence of the Minister and Junior Minister at the Department of Finance from the Houses of the Oireachtas on a week when the Seanad and the Committee on Finance and the Public Service are discussing the proposed amendments. If the Taoiseach is not embarrassed by their absence then he damn well should be.

    "In conclusion, I would strongly caution against any changes which would restrict the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. I ask the Government to support this Bill introduced by the Labour party, and extend the period of review of the Freedom of Information Act for another year to allow a meaningful consultation in advance of any changes to the Freedom of Information Act." ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe has described the Government approach to the growing crisis in our health service as "shambolic" and accused the Government of "deliberately encouraging and facilitating the development of a two-tier health service" at the expense of the public service." The Dublin South West TD was speaking after a week of revelations that show that the public health service is at "breaking point".

He cited the cases of the job losses at the Mater Hospital, the lack of resources for cancer treatment at St Lukes and the appalling conditions at St Itas in Portrane as evidence that despite all the Government's pre-election promises that things have got worse instead of better.

He also contrasted the generous tax breaks of €10m introduced in the Finance Bill and given to a private health care provider in Charlie McCreevy's constituency with the real cutbacks to the public health service state wide.

Deputy Crowe said:

"It is clear that the Government's handling of the healthcare crisis is shambolic. We have Ministers stepping over each other in an attempt to apportion blame for what is going on. The Finance minister accusing the Health minister of bad practice and inefficiency and vice versa. All this to avoid collective accountability and responsibility and to save the Taoiseach's blushe for what is a scandal.

"It is Government policy that is at the heart of the health crisis. They are deliberately encouraging and facilitating the development of a two-tier health service where only those who can afford treatment get treated and those who can't languish on every spiralling waiting lists. The generous tax breaks of up to €10m, sneakily introduced in the Finance Bill for the benefit of a provider of private health care who is based in Charlie McCreevy's own constituency shows that the Government is more interested in following the American model of healthcare which only looks after those who can afford it than in looking after thegeneral needs of the population.

"Recent revelations of job losses at the Mater Hospital, the lack of resources for cancer treatment at St Lukes, the appalling condition of St Itas all point to a public health service at breaking point and show that the Governments pre-election promises were not worth the paper they were written on. Talk of increased budgets of 2, 3 and even 4% is meaningless when we all know that inflation has outstripped these increases many times over." ENDS

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Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams MP, Martin McGuinness MP, Pat Doherty MP, Martin Ferris TD and Gerry Kelly MLA today begin a six-day coast-to-coast trip to the United States where they will visit more than 17 cities and take part in a wide engagement with Irish America on the current negotiations in the peace process. Mitchel McLaughlin departs for Canada today for a six-day trip. Cities they will visit include New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit and Toronto.

Speaking as they departed for the US this morning Pat Doherty MP said: "Over the next six days we will be visiting cities across the US to update Irish America on the current negotiations in the peace process. The message we will be bringing to the US and Canada this St. Patrick's Day is that while progress has been made in these talks, substantive gaps remain. I will be assuring our supporters and friends that discussions are continuing with the two governments and the other parties in a sustained effort to close these gaps. This is very much work in progress. And we will be seeking the ongoing support of Irish America"ENDS

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Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle member Mary Lou McDonald was this weekend chosen by the party as the Dublin candidate for next year’s European election.  Speaking following her selection at the convention in Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street Ms.McDonald said that “Sinn Féin is contesting this election to win, to return a Sinn Féin MEP for Dublin.’  Ms. McDonald said: 

“Sinn Féin has brought a new type of politics to Dublin and to the country as a whole.  We want to eliminate the corruption so prevalent for decades and deliver real change.  We are about empowering communities to make our country a better place to live for us all.   

“Sinn Féin’s success in the local and general elections shows that our agenda for change is popular.  In the last decade Sinn Féin has gone from strength to strength in Dublin City.  We stood in all twelve constituencies in the General Election and received more than 40,000 votes.  We are contesting this election to win, to return a Sinn Féin MEP for Dublin. This is a realisable goal.

”Next years EU Parliament election will take place against a backdrop of change and challenges. The EU of today is a changed entity from that which Ireland acceded to some thirty years ago. It is not only desirable, but necessary to evaluate the direction in which this project is moving and the implication of that for Ireland.

“Deliberations on the Convention on the Future of Europe are now well underway. The new Treaty, which will result from this process, will mark the most radical reassessment of the EU political project to date.

“The public debate during the two referendums on the Nice Treaty reflected significant public disquiet about the political character of the EU. The people have demonstrated an appetite to engage, challenge and exert their influence on the shape and direction of the EU.

“Sinn Féin politics are about democracy, equality, the rights of citizens and of nations.   We are the radical alternative to the failed politics of the establishment parties who have been invisible for so long in Europe.

“We need a voice in Europe for the people of Dublin that will represent their views at a European level.  Beginning today I will be going door to door throughout the city and county meeting ordinary people, community groups, womens groups, trade unions, business people and more seeking a mandate for change in Europe.”ENDS 

Profile of Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald is married to Martin Lanigan and lives in Castleknock, Dublin 15. Educated in Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Limerick and Dublin City University Mary Lou has studied English Literature, European Integration Studies and Human Resource Management.

She previously worked as a consultant for the Irish Productivity Centre, a researcher for the Institute of European Affairs and a trainer in the trade union sponsored Partnership Unit of the Educational and Training Services Trust.

She is the Sinn Féin representative for Dublin West and is keenly involved in many local community groups.  She is a member of the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle and the party representative to the National Forum on Europe.  She currently works for the party in co-ordinating the work of Sinn Féin elected  representatives across the island.

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Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP addressing party activists and elected representatives in Dublin City this afternoon, following a special meeting of the party's Ard Chomhairle to discuss the current negotiations said that "While substantial progress has been made on a range of issues substantive gaps do remain. Discussions are continuing with the two governments and the other parties in a sustained effort to close these gaps. This is very much work in progress." 

Mr. Adams said:

"Last May I predicted that the story of the General Election would be the story of the rise of Sinn Féin, and that Dublin was key to this. Next year, I believe the story of the European elections will again be the story of Sinn Féin, especially here in Dublin.

"Last May we took two Leinster House seats here and came within less than a hundred votes of taking a third in this constituency. The hard work, the long hours and the dedication each Sinn Féin activist put into the campaign gave us a vote of 40,000 across Dublin city and county. And it is the same people, the men and women gathered in this room who have the potential to make Sinn Féin the story of the European elections next year, to lead us into Europe, to fight for independence and socialism in a whole new field of struggle.

"The huge vote we got in Dublin is something we can build on, but we all know we have not reached our potential in this City. We saw in the Nice referendums how many people share our concern at the pace of European integration. People are worried about our loss of independence, the erosion of our sovereignty and the disappearance of Irish neutrality. A couple of weeks ago the AIB announced record profits of 1.4 billion Euros but Sinn Féin's proposals to increase tax on banks cannot be implemented, because Europe says so. We are restricted in the taxation rates we set, the amount we can borrow and the policies we can pursue.

 "The Convention on the Future of Europe has been drafting a European Constitution that will be the subject of the next major EU treaty. The text of the proposed EU Constitution could be ready by the end of next month. We could be voting on the new EU Treaty the same day as we go to the polls to elect our MEPs. Make no mistake, it is a battle for our future. The proposed EU constitution would take precedence over the 1937 constitution.

 "Republicans have to get our heads around these issues now so we conduct an even stronger campaign than we did for Nice I and II.

 "We will lock horns with those so-called "supra-nationalists" who believe that national sovereignty is an outmoded hindrance, and who seek to build an EU superstate. We will face down those militarists who want to build an EU Army. We will offer a progressive alternative to those who would make social progress, equality, civil and human rights subservient to the needs of big business.

 "Many years ago James Connolly wrote an article about Home Rule entitled 'What is a free nation?' which proved that under a Home Rule government, we would not have freedom, we would not have independence. It makes interesting reading decades later to discover that after achieving the limited measure of independence republicans were able to achieve in the South, we have given it away for a diluted version of Home Rule. And being ruled from Brussels is no better than being ruled from London.

 "We have seen the dissatisfaction in the communities right across this City at the actions of this government since it has been returned to power. Community Employment schemes have been axed. We had a Budget that has left the poorest in Irish society less well-off.  The number of homeless is continuing to grow. Children are still trapped in poverty and going to schools in buildings that are a danger to them.

 "There is an anger out there on the streets of Dublin, an anger at the glaring inequalities in Irish society. Some of the TDs have spoken to me about walking out of Leinster House every night and not being able to go a hundred yards before meeting the first homeless person on the side of the street.

 "In the very heart of the capital city in what is still a growing economy, our people are still living a hand to mouth existence and the government seems unable, or unwilling to do what is necessary to deliver real change in this society.

 "Sinn Féin is not a party of narrow nationalism, as many strove to portray us during both Nice campaigns.  We are conscious of the role that Ireland must and should play in the world. Sinn Féin a truly international party working for equality and justice in Ireland and throughout this planet.

 "We have presented our vision of the role Ireland can play on the international stage. Our commitment to neutrality, affirmed again by our team in Leinster House a couple of weeks ago when they presented a Bill to enshrine neutrality' in the constitution of this state, is a commitment to positive neutrality. It does not mean isolationism. It means being a positive force in world politics, encouraging dialogue instead of warfare.

 "We need a voice in Europe for the people of Dublin that will represent their views at a European level, The Irish working class need proper representation in the European Parliament and they are not going to get it from any other party in this state. James Connolly wrote, "There can be no perfect Europe in which Ireland is denied even the least of its national rights." It is that Europe, the Europe James Connolly envisaged, which we want to build today, and next year you will immeasurably advance that struggle by returning Dublin's first Sinn Féin MEP.

Peace talks ­a work in progress

 "I would now like to talk to you for a few minutes about the current negotiations and where we see things going over the next few months.  But I would like to begin by taking you back almost ten years to within days of the IRA cessation in 1994  when Albert Reynolds, John Hume and I met in this city. After years of private contact and negotiations this was the first public coming together of the various strands of nationalism on this island and its significance reverberated far beyond these shores to London, Washington and further afield. Central to what we were about at that time was the need for a peace process based on the principles of inclusion and democracy. These principles which we have stood by have in many ways helped create the progress achieved so far. If the last ten years, or indeed the last thirty years or the entire time since partition has proved anything it is that exclusion, discrimination and inequality do not work regardless of whether it is pursued by state, politicians or indeed elements of wider society.

 "As we move to conclude this phase of negotiations these basic principles remain central to our approach.  In the tactical thrust of negotiations it is crucial to actually remember what all of this is about and what we are trying to achieve - ending conflict and division on this island and building a new Ireland which is inclusive of all.

"This is the goal which guided us in the negotiations,  which led to the Good Friday Agreement and it is the goal which is guiding us today. Of course, five years ago. we knew that the Agreement would not be implemented overnight.  We knew that it would be more difficult to get it implemented than it was to achieve it.  Especially if the governments did not stand by their obligations.

 "It is unacceptable that the British government have unilaterally suspended political institutions at the behest of unionism on four occasions. It is unacceptable that they have now postponed the elections at the behest ofunionism. And it is unacceptable that they are now attempting to make the entire Agreement subject to sanctions demanded by unionism.

 "This is not just bad for democracy, it is putting in jeopardy much of the work that we have achieved in recent weeks and months.  And this should be reflected upon by those parties who have for whatever reason supported the sanctions position or acquiesced to it.

 "This current negotiation actually commenced in December, picked up pace in January and became more intensive over the past few weeks ending up of course in Hillsborough this week.

 "I have to say that we did succeed in making substantial progress over all of the range of issues, which we had been pressing the British government on.  These included:

  • New legislation on Policing and Criminal Justice
  • Demilitarisation
  • Equality
  • Human Rights
  • Irish Language Rights

 "However substantive gaps do remain on important issues. Discussions are continuing with the two governments and the other parties in a sustained effort to close these gaps. This is very much work in progress.

"We have met with and will continue to meet with the UUP to try and resolve issues such as the sustainability of the political institutions and the All-Ireland Parliamentary Forum.

"Next week many of the Sinn Féin leadership are going to the United States.  We will be engaging with the Administration at the highest levels in addition to our ongoing engagement with Irish America,  which has played a valuable role in the enhancement of the peace process. 

"On our return we will be facing into the Ard Fheis at the end of the month.  I think it is worth noting that this will be the first Ard Fheis to be broadcast live on RTE - ten years after the disgraceful and petty decision of the establishment parties here to ban us from the Mansion House.

"So this is not a time to become spectators. It is a time to build alliances and forge new relationships.  Our party is the engine of the process of change on this island.  We have a lot of work to do.  A lot of people are depending on us.  In the weeks ahead we have to secure commitments from the two government for the completion of the Good Friday Agreement." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Spokespersons on Agriculture and Rural Development, Martin Ferris TD and Gerry McHugh MLA, along with Pat Doherty MP, met in Dublin on Thursday to discuss the further development of party policy. The meeting reviewed progress made to date as well as the party's efforts to encourage the tackling of the crisis in rural Ireland on an All Ireland basis.

In a joint statement, Deputy Ferris , Mr. McHugh and Mr. Doherty said:

"Sinn Féin has deep roots throughout rural Ireland and it is vital that this is reflected in party policy. To this end we have been engaged in a process of practical work through the political institutions and through contact with other representative groups, as well as developing a comprehensive policy on all aspects of farming and rural development. Much of this will be reflected in the wide-ranging debate that will take place at this month's Ard Fheis.

"Rural Ireland encompasses far more than simply farming and it is vital that along with the protection and strengthening of that sector, that everyone living in rural communities from Kerry to Antrim has the means to live a decent life. That means that apart from farming, that there are adequate jobs as well as housing, transport, childcare and all the other basic entitlements that are necessary to end poverty and isolation. To this end Sinn Féin will be to the forefront of the fight to regenerate rural communities and to implement the policies that will reverse the decline that is all too evident at the present time". ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Fisheries Martin Ferris TD has called on the Government as a matter of urgency to frame a coherent strategy to tackle the crisis in Irish fishing. Deputy Ferris was speaking as fishing representatives met with Minister Dermot Ahern in Dublin. On Wednesday the TD for Kerry North questioned the Minister in the Dáil on quota allocation management, the high level of fines imposed on Irish fishermen, and the Government's strategy to protect the Irish Box conservation area.

Deputy Ferris said:

"The crisis facing Irish fishermen and coastal communities at the present moment cannot be overestimated. The restrictions placed on fishermen are making many feel that they are being criminalized for pursuing their livelihood. Everyone accepts the need for conservation of stocks but the heavy handed manner in which this is being implemented without any genuine involvement of the industry, and contrasted with the threat to the Irish Box, is causing immense frustration.

"If Irish fishing is to survive as a viable pursuit, it requires nothing less than a complete renegotiation of the terms under which our fisheries are regulated by the Common Fisheries Policy. The legacy of the bad deal done in 1973 has debilitated the industry. Our fisheries are possibly our single strongest natural resource and yet they have been squandered and sold off over the past three decades. It is time for them to be reclaimed for the Irish people". ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health Spokesperson, Mid Ulster MLA John Kelly has welcomed the news that the measures to tackle the problem of waiting lists put in place by Bairbre de Brún have begun to pay dividends. Mr Kelly said:

"Hospital waiting lists were for a long time seen as an intractable problem that reflected the decades of under investment in our health service.

"It is good news that there now appears to be a downward trend in the waiting list figures. It is evidence that the measures put in place to tackle the problem by Bairbre de Brún are beginning to pay dividend. The figures published today are based on the December returns, when there is normally a seasonal increase in waiting list numbers, so the reduction is particularly significant.

"The de Brún waiting list measures included a number of specific initiatives and resources targeted at reducing the problem. We need to ensure that the present incumbent continues to support and prioritise the de Brún measures.

"It is also important that the de Brún model for protected elective surgery units are developed and given the resources required to allow them to expand as rapidly as possible because this is the key to further improvement." ENDS

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er for Justice, Equality, and Law Reform to ensure that the promised Equal Status Amendment Bill includes provisions on statutory duty, or else to introduce new legislation to this effect.

"For years now Sinn Féin have been saying that we need legislation in this state to provide for equality-proofing of law, policy, and budgetary decision-making legislation that will make promoting equality a statutory duty. This is an act of completion under the Good Friday Agreement that the government has absolute control over and therefore should progress without delay." ENDS

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Speaking after a Sinn Féin Equality conference Sinn Féin Equality Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA Dr Dara O'Hagan said:

"There is a consensus that while there have been some important steps in advancing the equality agenda that there remains a substantial amount of progress to made before we can say that close to the commitments and vision contained the Good Friday Agreement."

Over 100 people from across the equality constituency - the community and voluntary sectors and the statutory agencies attended the Sinn Fein Equality Conference on 'Measuring Equality Since the Good Friday Agreement' held at Stormont today (Wednesday 5th March).

Speakers included - Joan Harbinson - Chief Commissioner, Equality Commission; Kate Hayes - Chairperson, Equality Authority; Dr Joanna McMinn - Director, National Women's Council of Ireland; Tim Cunningham - Equality Coalition; and Bairbre de Brún - Sinn Féin MLA

Speaking after a Sinn Féin Equality conference Sinn Féin Equality Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA Dr Dara O'Hagan said:

"There is a consensus that while there have been some important steps in advancing the equality agenda that there remains a substantial amount of progress to made before we can say that close to the commitments and vision contained the Good Friday Agreement.

"There are key actions which are required to bring the momentum back into the full implementation of the equality agenda but perhaps more importantly, speakers from across the equality constituency identified political will as the key to progress. It is increasingly apparent that a lack of will has crept into the equality agenda coming predominantly from within the Unionist political parties and a dead hand from within certain departments and their civil servants." ENDS

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Speaking at the National Women Council's launch of their strategy to bring about 30% representation of women in political decision-making by 2005, Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin TD pledged his party's support. He said Sinn Féin was aiming to greatly increase its number of women candidates and elected representatives in the 2004 local government and EU elections.

Speaking at the launch in Government Buildings, Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"As a party striving towards an Ireland of Equals, Sinn Féin fully supports the Equality Agenda and its implementation throughout society. Sinn Féin was instrumental in raising the Equality Agenda during the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and this led to the enactment of legislation in both states in Ireland.

"We are hosting a conference this Wednesday in Belfast to scrutinise what has been achieved, what barriers exist and what has further to be achieved arising out of the Equality & Human Rights issues in the Good Friday Agreement.

"Sinn Féin has appointed an Equality Director, our outgoing General Secretary, Lucilita Bhreatnach who is heading up the party's Gender Equality Section. We are affiliated to the Equality for Women Measure as part of the National Development Plan. A Strategy and Programme has been put in place to deal with these issues on a number of fronts. This has included Awareness Programmes on Gender Audits and Gender Impact Assessments which have been held in the regions with party representatives on the ground and at leadership level. We are currently conducting an Audit of Women within the party.

"We have further tackled at national leadership level a number of issues on this front to further develop strategies to remove obstacles or barriers which exists in order to promote further all aspects of the Equality Agenda. In particular, we have incorporatms to encourage more family friendly practices.

"It is a stark fact that men have historically enjoyed an advantage over women in politics due to a number of factors. Radical changes need to occur now at different levels. As the National Women's Council 'Jobs for the Boys' document starkly points out, there has only been an increase of 1% in Leinster House representation in the past 10 years and the percentage of women elected councillors in the 26 counties is 15%.

Change is long overdue and we in Sinn Féin are determined to play our part in bringing it about.

"Glacfaimid ár bpáirt ins na hathruithe seo uile ins na míonna agus bliante romhainn in Éirinn." ENDS

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Sinn Fein TD for Louth, Arthur Morgan expressed his shock today at, "the decision by An Bord Pleanala to grant planning permission to Indaver Ireland for a 170,000 tonne waste burning incinerator while amazingly rejecting a recycling facility on the same site, on the bizarre grounds of 'unnecessary car borne traffic'."

Deputy Morgan added, "An Bord Pleanala are on the one hand concerned about car traffic but have ignored the deep concerns of residents in Louth, Meath and North Dublin. These communities all have legitimate health fears about the incinerator project, especially after it was revealed that an incinerator in Antwerp run by Indaver had been closed since August because it has failed consistently to show it could control dioxin emissions.

"The Board also ignored the recently published report on Health and Environmental Effects of Landfilling and Incineration of Waste, which acknowledged 'associations between developing certain cancers and living close to incinerator sites'.

"An Bord Pleanala also failed to appreciate that this development is premature because it has not allowed a reasonable time for an effective recycling programme to be developed in the North East

"We need to do everything we can to support the communities in around Carranstown in any further avenues or appeals that they take and I urgently call on the minister for Environment and Local Government to reconsider not just the Indaver project but the whole incinerator agenda. There is still time to put all our collective will into developing a real waste management strategy that is grounded in reuse, reduction and recycling". ENDS

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Speaking in advance of tomorrows one-day seminar entitled "A Human Rights Approach to Policing" organised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Justice Aengus Ó Snodaigh said that the Patten proposals for policing in the Six Counties "should be introduced into the 26 Counties". He said that this should be "the minimum threshold for police reform in this state" which should have "human rights at its core".

Deputy Ó Snodaigh said: "The Irish Council for Civil Liberties seminar on Policing tomorrow provides a timely and welcome addition to the debate on policing on this island. It is Sinn Féin's view that the proposals set out in Patten in the Six Counties should be introduced in the 26 Counties as the minimum threshold for police reform in this state.

"Recent controversies surrounding the activities of Gardai the length and breadth of this state show that there is an urgent need for Garda reform. There is a deficit in openness and accountability which much be addressed.

"Too often we still hear of a police 'force' when we should be talking about a police 'service'. This is crucial if we are to restore public confidence in policing which has been severely damaged over the last number of years. We need human rights to be at the core of any new service and we need the Gardai to be accountable to the public.

"We would specifically endorse the ideas of a completely independent police ombudsman to investigate complaints of malpractice, human rights training as a requirement for all Gardai, and the establishment of community policing boards to ensure accountability and transparency and effective deployment of resources.

"We would call on the Minister for Justice and the Garda representatives to approach this seminar in a spirit of openness with a view to initiating the reforms that are needed in this outdated and unaccountable institution." ENDS

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Responding to the comments made by UUP leader David Trimble at his party's AGM in Belfast Sinn Féin National Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin said:

" Sinn Féin have been involved in intense discussions with the two governments across the range of issues which are at the center of this crisis.

" Mr. Trimble today demanded that the British government introduce a mechanism to sanction parties. Moves to introduce sanctions against the Sinn Féin electorate would be entirely outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and are totally unacceptable.

" This core principles of this peace process are inclusivity and respect for democratic mandates. Mr. Trimble's proposals fly in the face of this reality and are a blatant attempt to dilute and deny the most basic rights and entitlements of the Sinn Féin electorate." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin speaking at a meeting of the party's Ard Chomhairle in Dublin this afternoon said that "any departure from the Good Friday Agreement in the current negotiations in favour of David Trimble's demands for sanctions against republicans would represent a clear and present danger to the process.

Mr. McLaughlin said:

"We are locked into intensive negotiations with the British and Irish governments to resolve the current crisis in the process. The focus of our discussions is around what Tony Blair has described as acts of completion for the Good Friday Agreement on all of the outstanding matters - policing, demilitarisation, criminal justice, equality and human rights. All of these matters are of equal concern and equal priority and need to be addressed.

"The negative behaviour of the UUP and their refusal to engage in the negotiations remains an ongoing concern.

"I do want to state clearly that any departure from the Good Friday Agreement in favour of David Trimble's demands for sanctions would represent a clear and present danger to the process. It is ridiculous that ten years into this process that the unionist approach still revolves around the exclusion of republicans.

"We need to see an end to the anti-Agreement dead hand over the process and a plan for its full implementation."ENDS

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