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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 MEP for Dublin Mary Lou McDonald has this morning said that her party would welcome Romanian entry into the European Union provided they fulfilled the 'Copenhagen Criteria' on democracy and respect for human rights. Ms McDonald welcomed the fact that Romania had introduced national child protection standards designed to promote the rights of the child.

Ms McDonald was welcoming a report on Romania's progression towards accession presented to the European Parliament by the Committee on Foreign Affairs Rapporteur Pierre Moscovici.

Speaking from Strasbourg Ms McDonald said:

"Sinn Féin would welcome the time when Romania can enter the European Union as full participating member state. Whilst Romania still has a distance to travel in terms of their treatment of minority communities and social reforms, I welcome moves towards strengthening the rights of children and democratic principles.

"One of the proposed amendments for inclusion in the report urges Romania to continue the reform of the social security and welfare system, particularly with regard to improving health services including a comprehensive reform of mental health care and ensuring social inclusion of people with disabilities. In particular, there must be a focus on the rights of children in Romania. Many children within orphanages in the country continue to languish in institutions without proper supervision or medical care.

"This report urges Romania to press swiftly ahead with reform in all spheres, and I welcome efforts to ensure that Romania complies with international norms concerning democracy, human rights and protections for its most vulnerable citizens." ENDS

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Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún has this morning said that the European Parliament must review its procedures if it is to ensure a level of 'public confidence in its workings'. She also said Sinn Féin was committed to 'transparency and accountability within the EU'.

Ms de Brún was speaking after a row erupted in the European Parliament during the vote on the opening of talks with Turkey, when 147 MEPs forced a secret ballot on the issue.

Speaking from Strasbourg Ms de Brún said:

"It is an absolute disgrace that the vote on opening up of accession talks with Turkey was held in secret. Sinn Féin is opposed to secret ballots or votes in the European Parliament, or any other forum to which we are elected. We will not accept 'an old boys club' or a secret culture of nods and winks. EU citizens are entitled to know how their MEPs are voting on such crucial issue.

"The citizens of the European Union demand institutions which are transparent and accountable. Once again the debate on EU transparency comes into sharp focus. Only last month the EU Ombudsman's report made clear that a number of EU institutions (including the European Commission) had not adhered to recommendations and regulations on the access to public documents.

"Sinn Féin has consistently said that there is a democratic deficit within the European Union and its institutions. How can the European Commission and Council sell the European Constitution to the Irish people with a straight face if they are prepared to hold secret meetings and secret votes away from the gaze of the people?

"I am calling for a complete overhaul of the European institutions and their relationship to the people of the EU. Secret ballot and secret meetings will do nothing to enhance public confidence in the EU. Sinn Féin will accept nothing less than a truly democratic and accountable EU." ENDS

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Sinn Féin North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly and South Down MLA Catríona Ruane will be available to speak to the media this evening, Thursday 16th December, at 6:00pm at Sinn Féin headquarters on Sevastapol Street, Belfast in relation to the Columbia 3 announcement.

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Sinn Féin MEP Mary Lou McDonald has this morning welcomed a proposed European Strategy on fighting drugs for 2005 - 2012. The proposal is due to be voted upon in the European Parliament this afternoon. Giusto Catania, Rapporteur to the EU Parliament, proposed the report.

Speaking before the vote Ms McDonald said that Sinn Féin viewed this strategy as an EU commitment towards combating the growing drugs problem'.

Ms McDonald further commented that the proposed strategy was an indicator that the current EU Anti-Drugs Strategy 'was failing'.

Speaking from Strasbourg Ms McDonald said:

"Both myself and my colleague Bairbre de Brún MEP will be supporting this proposal when it is presented to the European Parliament today for ratification. Sinn Féin has a long record of engagement with local communities throughout Ireland on the drugs issue and we endorse any attempt to rethink current anti-drugs strategies whether in Ireland or at an EU level.

"The objective of this proposal is to give priority to protecting the lives and health of users of illicit substances and improving their well-being through a balanced and integrated approach to the problem. We also support the report's recommendation that there should be an increase in the availability of harm-reduction programmes, with specific reference to the prevention of the spread of HIV and other blood diseases, common amongst many drug users.

"Another recommendation of this report is for the establishment of rehabilitation programmes for users as an alternative to prison. There is a growing realisation of the need for a holistic and comprehensive approach to the provision of drug treatment programmes and other services for drug users. However, such programmes require flexibility and sensitivity in balancing the rights of the individual, their families and the needs of the community.

"We require a new approach if we are to successfully tackle the drugs problem. This report goes some small way to achieving this, and is an indicator that the current EU Anti-Drugs Strategy is failing. Sinn Féin recommends this report as a small step towards effective prevention and rehabilitation strategies." ENDS

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Sinn Féin MEP for Dublin Mary Lou McDonald has raised the issue of three Irishmen in Colombia - Niall Connolly, Martin McAuley and James Monaghan - at a European Parliament session.

In a question to the European Commission Ms McDonald asked: What does the EU Commission think about the breaches of these EU citizens' rights? and what is the EU Commission doing to vindicate the rights of these three EU citizens?.

Speaking this morning Ms McDonald said:

"Yesterday evening I raised the issue of the three Irishmen and EU citizens in Colombia, Niall Connolly, Martin McAuley and James Monaghan with the European Commission.

"These men have been detained in various Colombian jails from August 2001 to April 2004. During that time their rights were systematically denied and their lives in constant danger. President Uribe, the head of the armed forces and the Attorney General made prejudicial comments during their detention.

"In April 2004 Judge Acosta found the three EU citizens innocent of charges of training the FARC. The men have been denied the right to leave the country because the Attorney General, Luis Camilo Osario -whose poor human rights record has been documented by international human rights organisations- has appealed the decision. This is a flagrant violation of the rights of these EU citizens.

"In light of this information, I challenged the European Commission to comment upon their view of the human breaches of three EU citizens. I have also asked the Commission what they are doing to vindicate the rights of the three men."ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd has welcomed the decision of the New Zealand government to introduce a smoking ban in all enclosed public places.

Mr O‚Dowd said:

"While this is good news for people in New Zealand, people in this part of Ireland are still waiting on Angela Smith to move on this issue. It is not good enough for Ms Smith to be paralysed by inaction because British Health Secretary John Reid is wedded to the agenda of the tobacco industry.

"It is time that we joined with the lead given by the government in the south and by other countries across the world that are putting the health of their people first and the rights of workers at the top of the public health agenda.

"It is unacceptable that workers in this part of Ireland may be forced to wait until 2008 for a partial ban when compatriots in the rest of Ireland can already see the impact that the workplace smoking ban there is having on both the working environment for many of the lowest paid workers and on smoking habits." ENDS

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Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún has this morning welcomed a proposal which will see a number of existing EU education and training evidence documents integrated into a co-ordinated framework known as 'Europass'. The aim is to make qualifications and skills more transparent and comparable, and will see greater recognition given to qualifications gained in one EU member state and applied in another state. It will be of great benefit when applying for jobs at home and abroad.

The proposal was passed yesterday evening in the EU Parliament.

Ms de Brún said the proposal would be particularly beneficial for Ireland, where lack of mutual recognition of qualifications has been identified as a barrier to cross-border and all-Ireland working. Ms de Brún said that this proposal was 'another small step towards all Ireland integration and harmonisation'.

Speaking from Strasbourg, Ms de Brún said:

"Europass is an eminently sensible proposal which will undoubtedly make life easier for people moving throughout Ireland and between EU member states. Workers and students should find it particularly beneficial that Europass will incorporate the transparent communication of skills throughout the EU.

"The standard recognition of a number of documents throughout many of the EU's member states will, in theory, make study and work in the EU a much smoother process. Documents include a Curriculum Vitae and a Diplom Supplement setting out achievements at higher education level in the citizens' own country.

"This proposal will be extremely beneficial in Ireland. Europass presents another small step towards further all Ireland integration and harmonisation. Both myself and my colleague, Mary Lou McDonald, endorsed this motion in the European Parliament yesterday evening." ENDS

Note to editors:

By encouraging qualifications and skills to be transparent and comparable, the proposal is facilitating skill-related professional mobility in Europe. It aims to create a uniform portfolio of documents to give citizens the option of setting out their personal abilities, skills and qualifications in a clear, consistent and internationally transparent manner when applying for jobs at home and abroad.

The Europass portfolio consists of five documents:

  • the Europass curriculum vitae
  • the Europass mobility pass (for periods of education or training abroad)
  • the Europass diploma supplement (for university degrees)
  • the Europass language pass (for language knowledge)
  • the Europass certificate supplement (for training courses).

When applying for a job, citizens are free to use individual Europass documents or the whole portfolio.

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Sinn Féin West Belfast Assembly member Michael Ferguson has warned older people to be vigilant after a gang of men claiming to be from the Housing Executive robbed an 81-year-old man of his life savings at his home in Poleglass.

Cllr Ferguson said:

"These people, who target vulnerable and elderly people are scum. They have no place within our communities.

"I would urge everyone be vigilant and to ask and check identification of any unknown callers and even to contact the agency the callers claim to be from before allowing anyone unknown into their homes.

"I would also call on the community to come together and rally around those people who have been victimised in this way.

"It is important, particularly at this time of year when the nights grow dark earlier that everyone does their bit to ensure that our communities are safer. Get to know your neighbours. Check that they are OK.

"It is also vital that we see greater resources ploughed into community initiatives that embrace the wider community. Projects such as Good Morning Colin Glen are there to provide contact and support but there needs to be more money available for such projects. There are also a number of security and safety schemes operating, particularly in North Belfast, that demand greater financial support." ENDS

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In the course of his contribution to Statements on the Six Counties this afternoon in the Dáil, Sinn Féin leader in the Dáil, Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said, "no-one should lose sight of the tremendous progress made" in relation to the peace process. He went on to say there was a "need for renewed efforts by both governments and all the parties to reach agreement". The Cavan/Monaghan Deputy went on to call on the DUP to enter in to direct negotiations with Sinn Féin.

Deputy Ó Caoláin said, "In the current fallout from the stalled peace process no-one should lose sight of the tremendous progress made and the potential for further progress. There is a need for renewed efforts by both governments and all parties to reach agreement. I know that my colleagues in the Sinn Féin negotiating team are sparing no effort and this morning have been in further talks in Belfast.

"I want to pay tribute to all those who played a positive role in negotiations. They have not failed and their work is not over.

"The fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement, including its power-sharing, all-Ireland and equality provisions have been defended and key aspects of the Agreement have been further strengthened.

"The overall political package that was reached had a range of very significant measures and each is important in its own right. They are:

  • the reinstatement of the Executive, the Assembly and all-Ireland structures, including the All-Ireland Ministerial Council
  • the removal by legislation in Westminster of the British Government's ability to suspend the institutions
  • a stronger pledge of office by Ministers to ensure that they participate fully in the Executive
  • a requirement of Ministers to engage with the All-Ireland structures
  • devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly
  • Six-County representation in the Oireachtas
  • A programme of demilitarisation
  • Measures to address the issue of people 'on the run' in both jurisdictions.

"These would be major steps forward by anyone's reckoning. With the Good Friday Agreement strengthened in this way, progress is now being stalled for a DUP demand for humiliation. Remember the DUP has campaigned in successive elections against the Good Friday Agreement. They still refuse to meet Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin is prepared to meet the DUP at any time.

"I believe that the DUP last week lacked the courage and the political will to sign up for a deal. That they came so far represents real progress, in spite of last week's setback. I am convinced that time and patient negotiation will bring them further and I believe that can happen sooner rather than later.

"We have a huge opportunity to move forward. The commitment the IRA was prepared to give on the issue of arms was huge, historic and unprecedented.

"The IRA decided, in its own words, to "support a comprehensive agreement by moving into a new mode which reflects our determination to see the transition to a totally peaceful society". It decided to instruct all IRA Volunteers not to engage in any activity which might thereby endanger that new agreement. And the IRA dealt, in an unprecedented manner, with the issue of arms, when it committed to conclude the process to completely and verifiably put all their arms beyond use and to agree with the IICD the completion of this process, speedily, and if possible by the end of December. To further enhance public confidence the IRA agreed to the presence of two clergymen as observers during this process.

"Anyone who knows anything about republican history and about the history of the peace process itself must acknowledge the huge significance of the IRA initiative. The IRA deserves credit for taking this very difficult and courageous step. While a wide spectrum of opinion will welcome it, many republicans will also have very deep concerns. But I believe that the IRA has once again shown leadership and bravery in its efforts to achieve justice and peace.

"Those who have been loudest on the issue of silent IRA arms have had little or nothing to say about loyalist weapons and British army weapons that are still in daily use on the streets of the Six Counties.

"There is a way forward from this most recent impasse. This should include direct dialogue between the DUP and Sinn Féin and the DUP owes it to its own electorate to give leadership by entering that dialogue. "There is a comprehensive agreement, a real achievement, on the table and we are determined to make progress on that basis.

"For Sinn Féin, and I hope for most in this Dáil, all of this is in the context of the unfinished and ongoing project to unite our country and all its people. Republicans are as determined as ever to reach that goal." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Party Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin speaking tonight after Ian Paisley's remarks leaving Hillsborough said:

"If unnamed Special Branch or intelligence sources are going to set Ian Paisley's agenda they are not going to set ours.

"Since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved unionist leaders have claimed that the issue of arms was at the top of their agenda. Now we have the leader of the DUP giving an ultimatum to the IRA not to deal conclusively with its weapons. This is an absurd situation which would be laughable if it were not so serious.

"The political process is in crisis because the DUP leader demands a process of humiliation - and if this means the issue of arms not being dealt with, and the significant offer made by the IRA last week gather moss - then this is Ian Paisley's preference. This is the stuff of Alice in Wonderland.

"It must appear to many, including surely some within his own party, that Ian Paisley's fixation on humiliating republicans now stands in the way of finding a resolution to the current problem." ENDS

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Sinn Féin anti-poverty spokesperson, North Belfast MLA Kathy, Stanton who jointly sponsored the 'Campaign Against the Cold' organised by coalition of charity groups including fuel poverty charity National Energy Action with unionist MLA George Dawson, has attacked the failure of direct rule ministers to prioritise action to tackle fuel poverty.

Speaking at the Stormont event, Ms Stanton said:

"We are here today to show the Department how important the eradication of fuel poverty is to many groups, organisations and constituencies across the North of Ireland; the Campaign Against the Cold will go on until Government finally takes the issue seriously enough to allocate the required resources to end fuel poverty. It is important that across the political spectrum politicians stand together and put direct rule ministers under pressure to find new money to tackle fuel poverty. This is a litmus test of the commitment of the British government to the issue of poverty.

"This event is a public commitment of Sinn Féin to work to eradicate fuel poverty. Our party has a track record on this issue.

"Everyone should be concerned at the extent of fuel poverty, made known from the Housing Executive's House Condition Survey, and that 203,000 households or one third of homes across the north are at risk. The most vulnerable in our society - older people, families with young children and people with disabilities suffer most. The overall figure of 33% hides pockets of extreme fuel poverty. In my own constituency of North Belfast, 47% of households are in fuel poverty. This is unacceptable and reflects the extent of social exclusion and poverty that my constituency alone has experienced over many years. It is well past time for real action on this issue.

"Fuel poverty is a combination of poor energy efficiency standards, low incomes and high fuel costs. Sinn Féin recognise that the cross departmental and crosscutting nature of fuel poverty needs a cross-departmental response. The problem of fuel poverty needs to be given political leadership at the highest level.

"Political leadership can get positive results, an example is the energy efficiency levy being approved in the Assembly. Sinn Féin have called for an inclusive, Cross-Departmental Ministerial Task Force as a vehicle for bringing all these partnerships together. We are not convinced that the plans for an interdepartmental group on fuel poverty, which excludes all other partners working on fuel poverty is the way to go. We will campaign for the creation of a Cross Departmental Task Force on fuel poverty." ENDS

Note to Editors

Sinn Féin and the DUP have jointly sponsored the conference on ENDING FUEL POVERTY - Where to go after the Fuel Poverty Strategy? In the Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings today, Wednesday 15th December 2004. Speakers include Kathy Staunton MLA (11.00), Mr Albert Jackson, Majella McCloskey, Director NEA NI and George Dawson MLA (11.30).

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Equality, Human Rights and Women, South Down MLA Catríona Ruane has welcomed a report on EU Asylum procedures and protections. Ms Ruane commenting upon the report entitled 'Report on asylum procedure and protection in regions of origin', said that it focuses on the humanitarian and civil rights which lie at the heart of the asylum debate.

Ms Ruane said:

"Progress in establishing a genuine human rights society can be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable. Much of the world assesses the EU's commitment to equality, justice and fair play by the way each member state conducts itself in terms of the treatment of those fleeing war and persecution across the globe.

"This report - on asylum procedure and protection - focuses on the humanitarian and civil rights which lie at the heart of the asylum debate.

"I fully support demand for the highest possible international human rights standards to guide EU policy. The report's rejection of 'holding centres' as even a short-term solution to the issue of asylum is welcome and should be strongly endorsed.

"Conflict, poverty and socio-political instability affect millions of people across the world. We need to shift the emphasis towards promoting conflict resolution and prevention under the auspices of the United Nations, rather than moving towards greater military intervention. The long-term solution to the issue of asylum is to reduce conflict and poverty globally. " ENDS

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The Sinn Féin Vice-President, Pat Doherty MP speaking in London today said:

"I believe that the major obstacle to reaching accommodation in the present impasse is the refusal of the DUP to talk directly to Sinn Féin about its concerns. There is absolutely no principle involved in this obstinacy. It is a political tactic. This is demonstrated by the fact that where it does not have the power to prevent it the DUP participates in studio debates, works with us on a daily basis in Council Chambers and even serves with us in civic roles such as in Derry where we have a Sinn Féin Mayor and a DUP Deputy Mayor. Therefore if Ian Paisley is really interested in finding a solution to the problems then he should talk directly with Gerry Adams.

"Many of the difficulties have arisen through misunderstandings of and misinterpretation of the relative positions because they are being fed through a third party, in this case the two governments. It's time for direct dialogue.

"Since the publication last week by the two governments of their proposals and the publication by the IRA of the contribution that it was prepared to make to the process work there has been repeated attempts to bring us down cul-de-sacs, none of which will make any positive contribution to seeing this deal done.

"But let us get back to the core issue. Look at the contribution that the IRA has set out. Think of the progress we have made to get to this point. This is not the time to become distracted by side issues and sideshows. This is the time for decisive political leadership. This is the time to do the deal. Sinn Féin could express all sorts of genuine grievances and reasons not to do a deal. But we are in the business of problem solving. We want to make this happen.

"There needs to be direct dialogue between the DUP and Sinn Féin." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Economy Spokesperson, national chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin has said that direct rule ministers need to be honest about the huge issue of 'economic inactivity' if they are going to provide a long-term basis for economic growth and begin to address the issue of poverty.

Mr McLaughlin said:

"It is dishonest of direct rule ministers to celebrate the level of unemployment. In Strabane, Derry and Belfast there has been little or no progress in tackling unemployment particularly long-term unemployment. Many people living with poverty will be angry at their analysis of unemployment.

"Over the year, LFS figures show an estimated increase of 3,000 in total employment, a 6,000 decrease in unemployment and a increase of 3,000 in the economically inactive.

"Direct rule Ministers should be more concerned that there are 499,000 people who are now classified as economically inactive, an increase of 33,000 on last year. This represents an economic inactivity rate of 28.5%. This is very high and has implications both for individuals and for our economy. Direct rule ministers must surely see that having a 727,000 people in employment and 499,000 people who are economically inactive will have very serious long-term consequences for economic growth.

"These statistics in no way reflect the true economic and personal cost of unemployment. In many areas we have generational long-term unemployment. There was also an annual increase of 3,000 in the number of 18-24 year olds unemployed and the unemployment rate 18-24 year olds is now 12.5%.

"If we look at the totals for people who are classified as economically inactive, at the 'official' unemployment figures and also at the levels of long-term unemployment and long-term illness and incapacity the picture is far from rosy. 25% of the population live in poverty. More economically inactive people means that there are more people at risk from poverty. There is no strategy in place to deal with poverty.

"If we are going to tackle the social and economic problems created by the patterns of economic activity and inactivity throughout then we need to be honest about what is happening. Using 'official figures' to disguise the true extent of the problem will not help us to put in place the long-term solutions that these long standing problems require." ENDS

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Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó' Snodaigh has said, "it is an outrage that women are still being paid less than men in Ireland in 2004." Deputy Ó Snodaigh was responding to a report published by the Central Statistics Office that outlined the gender inequalities that still exist in Irish society today.

Speaking in Dublin today he said: "Today there are more women in work outside the home than ever before. However there is still a disproportionate amount of women on the minimum wage and in the part-time and services sector. It is an outrage that women are still being paid less than men in Ireland in 2004. Women continue to earn one fifth less than men, the number of men earning more than €50,000 a year was over 115,000 while just 25,000 women exceeded that amount. The proportion of women at risk of poverty, after pensions and social transfers, was the highest in the EU in 2001 - at 23 per cent. These are just some of the shocking statistics which the Central Statistics office report highlighted.

"After years of economic boom it is totally unacceptable that we are still blighted with severe inequalities. While the people at the top of the social ladder continue to capitalise and make gains, many others are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their heads above water. The shortage of quality childcare makes it difficult for women to access full-time employment or to remain in the workforce.

"Sinn Féin will continue to campaign for the women's right to work and the right to equal pay. We will campaign for:

A. An increase in the minimum wage and the elimination of the gender pay gap.

B. Increased measures to create flexible, family-friendly working arrangements.

C. Paid parental leave as a right.

D. Extended maternity benefit from 18 weeks to 26 weeks.

E. Increased accessibility and relevance of enterprise supports for women returning to employment.

F. Allowing women to claim social welfare and other benefits as individuals, including atypical workers such as spouses assisting on family farms and in family businesses." ENDS

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government Arthur Morgan T.D. tonight raised the failure by New Ross Town Council to apply the proper terms of the local authority tenant purchase scheme in the Dáil. Deputy Morgan raised this matter with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government at the request of New Ross Town Councillor and Wexford County Councillor John Dwyer who brought to his attention the fact that tenant purchasers who bought their houses from New Ross Town Council since 1995 had been overcharged by €3,809 each.

Speaking in the Dáil during Matters on the Adjournment tonight Deputy Morgan said

"This issue was brought to my attention by Sinn Fein Wexford County Councillor John Dwyer, after he discovered that New Ross Town Council had not, when calculating the discount to be applied to the gross property price in the sale of local authority houses, applied the additional amount of €3,809 as per circular HRT 6/95 from the Department of the Environment and Local Government. The suspicion is that the failure was ongoing over approximately 10 years and amounts to a considerable sum of money. The Minister needs to tell the house how long this situation has been going on and when it was brought to his attention?

"How much money must New Ross Town Council now pay out to those who did not receive the appropriate discounts when they bought their house? Where will this money come from? Will it be paid out of by the Department in recognition of their failure to conduct adequate audits?

"There are serious concerns that the practice of not applying the €3,809 discount in all cases has been in place in all five local authorities throughout Wexford. As Wexford County Council is the loans authority for the county then all valuation certificates for local authority houses sold under the tenant purchase scheme pass through this office. If New Ross Town Council was alone among the Wexford local authorities in not applying the €3800 discount this matter would have been spotted and rectified.

"Has the Minister investigated the compliance of other authorities with the terms set out by his Department? The Minister needs to outline in his response what procedural checks his Department has in place in order to prevent deviation by local authorities from the terms of the tenant purchase scheme? If these procedural checks are in place, how did this go undetected?" ENDS

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Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún has welcomed a report on EU Asylum procedures and protections, to be debated in the European Parliament this afternoon. The draft report is due to be presented by Ms Jean Lambert (Greens).

Ms de Brún was speaking before delivering a speech to the EU Parliament on the issue of asylum. Commenting upon the report entitled 'Report on asylum procedure and protection in regions of origin,' Ms de Brún said: "This report is to be strongly commended for the focus it gives to the issues of humanitarian and civil rights which lie at the heart of the asylum debate."

Speaking in Strasbourg Ms de Brún said:

"One can judge the quality of a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable. Much of the world assesses the EU's commitment to equality, justice and fair play by the way each member state conducts itself in terms of the treatment of those fleeing war and persecution across the globe.

"Ms Lambert is to be strongly commended for the focus her report gives to the humanitarian and civil rights issues which lie at the heart of the asylum debate. I echo her call for the highest possible international human rights standards to guide EU policy in this regard. The report's rejection of so-called 'holding centres' as even a short-term solution to the issue of asylum is welcome and should be strongly endorsed.

"At any given time in my constituency, there are a number of people fleeing persecution who are kept in a 19th century Victorian jail, badly housed and treated like criminals. Such treatment is unacceptable and must be opposed.

"Conflict, poverty and socio-political instability affect millions of people across the world. We need to shift the emphasis towards promoting conflict resolution and prevention under the auspices of the United Nations, rather than moving towards greater militarization and military intervention. The long-term solution to the issue of asylum is to reduce conflict and poverty globally. The EU has a major role to play in this regard and must rise to the challenge.

"I am delighted to support this report and look forward to working with others in future, on this important policy issue. Let us hope that we get the policy right and in turn demonstrate to the world that when it comes to human rights, justice and equality - the policy implementation of the EU is as good as its rhetoric". ENDS

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Responding to remarks from a faceless individual within the British Army press office (in this mornings Irish News) after he questioned Crown force figures concerning alleged accidents at checkpoints in South Armagh, Sinn Féin Assembly member Conor Murphy said:

" It appears my remarks articulating local suspicions about the alledged incidents at checkpoints in South Armagh has hit a raw nerve with the British Army. I have to say however that they have a cheek criticising the democratic mandate held by Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin represent the majority of the nationalist community in the Six Counties. We put our views to the people and seek endorsement. The people of South Armagh are very clear that the British Army are not welcome and not wanted.

" Neither the British Army nor their British political masters represent anyone in Ireland. They are an occupying force who continue to terrorise nationalist communities across the six counties. British Army checkpoints in South Armagh are nothing to do with the rule of law. Like their fortresses and helicopter flights they are about domination, intimidation and terror.

" The British Army may have a desire to continue occupying South Armagh and other republican heartland's, they may have a desire to continue firing live rounds at local civilians but Sinn Féin will continue to demand that the British government honour their commitments and remove their war apparatus and their personnel from our communities.

" Building peace works both ways. Republicans have time and again proven themselves to be up for the challenge. Time and again the Crown forces have shown themselves to be incapable of grasping the challenges presented by this process. The people of South Armagh will simply not stand for their phoney excuses to continue their occupation any longer." ENDS

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At last nights meeting of Carrickmacross Town Council the members rejected a motion by Balbriggan Town Council on the proposal of Sinn Féin Councillor Matt Carthy.

The Balbriggan motion read: „To call on the Minister for Justice, Equality & Law Reform to return all asylum seeking unaccompanied children under the age of 18 years to their country of origin at immigration point."

Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy proposed that Carrickmacross Town Council reject the motion and this was unanimously agreed. Speaking afterwards Cllr. Carthy said that the elected members of Balbriggan Town Council should be ashamed of themselves for presenting such an overtly racist motion.

He said: "I am extremely disappointed that any local authority would have enough racist representatives to secure a majority to back this motion and forward it to other council chambers. The motion shows no compassion for the most vulnerable in our society. Children coming to Ireland seeking asylum need our support and understanding, not to be booted back on a boat or plane. Thankfully the members of Carrickmacross Town Council (made up of 3 SF, 3 FF, 2 FG, 1 Ind) were united in our rejection of this racist motion and I hope that a similar result will be forthcoming from other local authorities who receive this correspondence from Balbriggan".ENDS

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Sinn Féin national Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin speaking at the launch of the party's response to the draft Budget and Priorities for 2005-08 has said that the proposals are a betrayal of the priorities and commitments agreed by local elected representatives in the Assembly and Executive. Speaking in Belfast Mr McLaughlin said:

"This draft is a betrayal of the direction, priorities and commitments agreed by local elected representatives. It will have a devastating long-term impact on vital services particularly for the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society. Across a range of areas services will be devastated, particularly for our children and young, in our health and education systems and in the priority for tackling poverty.

"It also demonstrates the British governments' determination to force us down the road to privatisation of services and greater dependency on PFI and PPP. It will tie the Assembly into a policy straitjacket and severely restrict the freedom of any future Assembly and Executive.

"The reliance on the Investment Strategy and the SIB is a matter of concern. We are being required to take much of this in good faith. This is not good governance. Essentially an entire section of the economy and the Programme for Government is being handed over to an unelected, unaccountable non-transparent body.

Sinn Féin spokesperson Equality, Human Rights and Women, South Down MLA Catriona Ruane has said that the decision to end the Children's Fund was fatally flawed and called for its reintroduction. Ms Ruane said:

"This is not a budget for the future of the 6 counties. It is a budget that betrays the responsibility of British direct rule ministers to develop and maintain services, to address the major infrastructural deficit created by their own failure to invest adequately for decades and to support the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.

"The Children's Fund recognised the historical under-funding of children's services in the six counties and higher levels of family and children's poverty. Direct rule ministers gave a commitment to continue to build on the progress made by the Executive yet NIO ministers have unjustifiably moved away from these commitments. They are reneging on commitments to children made by democratically elected politicians. Axing the Fund involves a loss of £27m and is a blow to necessary services for children and young people that rely on the Fund and will lead to a reduction in services for the most vulnerable children.

"There is also an attempt within the Draft Priorities and Budget to ignore legal equality requirements to skew resources on the basis of objective need and instead to introduce a criteria on the basis of 'particular difficulties in Protestant working class areas'. Catholic working class areas also have particular difficulties stemming from the structural and institutional discrimination practised by the state. Across all the deprivation indicators Catholic/nationalists are worse off. There is a statutory equality duty on government to target resources on the basis of objective need. That is not being done and will result in the skewing of resources even further away from nationalist areas.

Sinn Fein Spokesperson on Employment and Learning, West Belfast MLA Michael Ferguson added:

"Sinn Féin is also extremely concerned with the insufficient resources allocated to Education in the draft budget. It is imperative that monies allocated improve services rather than just maintaining the current position.

"Across all services that are vital to the future of our young people - funded through the Children's Fund or through the education and health systems - there are huge pressures because of under funding. These proposals betray the future of our young people.

"The proposals to end Worktrack funding by 2006 will impact adversely on areas with a history of high unemployment. 1220 participants on Worktrack will simply stay on the benefits system and 150-200 permanent jobs - which are supported through the Worktrack programme - will be lost.

It is acknowledged in the Draft Priorities and Budget that "over 20% of the adult population.. perform at the lowest level of literacy and numeracy" in the north and that "high numbers of young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds . leave school with low levels of qualifications". The ending of programmes such as Worktrack and Learn Direct, which teach literacy and numeracy, increase self-esteem and increase individual employability, will exacerbate this situation.

The plans to impose Variable Fees are also deeply flawed. Top-up fees will reduce access rather than increase it and increase inequalities.

"Government must rethink the allocations for the education sector. The far-reaching plans that are underway with regard to the curriculum programme, SEN and Costello need adequate financing to be successful. It is imperative also that the ELB situation be taken in hand realistically yet not to the detriment of front line services and the children who avail of them.

"Cuts in Education and Library Board budgets are unacceptable as they are already facing financial crisis because they do not have enough resources to provide crucial services. Rather than the Department trying to strong arm ELBs to slash their services, the budget allocation for education should be reassessed. It is imperative that there are real increases in spending beyond those swallowed up by inflationary pressures. Quality of service is a core issue."

Sinn Féin Health Spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA John O'Dowd added:

"It is clear that despite year on year increases that the budget allocated to the DHSSPS is not sufficient to meet our health and social care needs.

"The linkage between levels of deprivation, ill-health and morbidity, including mental health problems, also weakened our position in respect of relative health spending. While proportionately more children require social services here than in England relative spending in England on children's social services is some 35% higher than here.

"Given the significant differential need over many years, and the continuing and devastating pattern of under-investment it has been estimated that spending here should be some 17% higher than those levels in England to achieve parity in meeting needs. That would have equated to, at least, an extra £190 million being made available to the DHSSPS budget.

"There are already enormous and increasing pressures on staff in the health service, growing labour market shortages across all disciplines and fundamental inequalities and gaps in the provision of training. It also remains to be seen if sufficient resources are available within the proposed budget to meet and underpin Agenda for Change.

"Each Board is expecting shortfalls in service funding to occur next year (£25m is a conservative estimate, possibly up to £65m). Even if Boards can remain static in maintaining present levels of delivery of services in year 1, by years 2&3, the situation could be well be one of decline.

"Learning Disability, Resettlement and Mental Health are other areas where further under-funding will have negative knock-on effects through possible loss of community care packages. Child-care and family services could face a major deficit, and requirements needed to fund the Children's Order were not met. There are also major consequences arising out of the instruction to Trusts that no new service development funding will be available for at least two years.

"The current proposals put a future Executive in the untenable position of imposing health cuts without effective revenue raising powers. Direct Rule Ministers have clearly failed to obtain the resources necessary to support our society and the political delivery of a peace dividend."

Commenting on the economic aspects of the draft proposals Mr McLaughlin said:

"The entire chapter on North/South, East/West and International Relations has disappeared from this document. It is a clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement that there is no all-Ireland economic strategy in this consultation. Partition and the existence of two economies on such a small island have had a detrimental effect on economic growth and wealth creation on the Island of Ireland.

"Instead there is a focus on the north as a separate political and economic entity that can compete on a global scale. This is an absurd as it is clear that the economy of the north of Ireland is not sustainable on its own. The lack of an all-Ireland economic agenda with the south viewed as a rival rather than working to a common agenda is not an acceptable approach. Competition between north and south is costing money. Island wide strategies that avoid duplication and make the most of finite resources is the most sensible approach to adopt.

"The poor infrastructure, high levels of unemployment and lack of job density west of the Bann is ignored within this document. This inequality between east and west of the Bann needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The focus is solely on economic competitiveness as opposed to economic regeneration and job creation. There is a failure recognise the potential of the social economy in developing small to medium size enterprises and as a means of job creation particularly in the more disadvantaged areas.

"The net outcome of this budget will be cuts in public services. This will have a detrimental impact particularly on health and education. The policies of successive British and unionist administrations have resulted in huge infrastructural deficits with the failure to invest in essential services such as water and sewage, transport, hospitals and education. In addition, we are a society emerging from decades of conflict. All of these require a peace dividend and greater levels of public expenditure.

In conclusion Mitchel McLaughlin said:

"No response to these draft proposals would be complete without raising concerns about the issue of water charges. The proposals are to raise this revenue through water rates. The budget states clearly that it intends: 'to implement a programme of reform of the delivery of water and sewerage services in Northern Ireland which will secure full self financing arrangements for these services by 2008/9 and provide a sustainable and long term funding arrangement to meet future investment needs'.

"The main drive behind the upgrading is from EU Directives and Environmental Heritage Services calls for clean and healthy water supply. This is disingenuous - there is no EU imperative on how funding should be raised. Sinn Féin remains opposed to the imposition of this new, regressive tax. We do not believe that people living here should be penalised for British Government negligence in its duty to maintain and improve this system over the last decades. The net outcome of these proposals will be a double tax on Water and Sewerage services." ENDS

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