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

The West Belfast MLA said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking this afternoon, Ms de Brún said:

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

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

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

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

Editors note:

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

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

Ms Gildernew said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cllr O'Dowd said:

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

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

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

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

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Sinn Fein Mid Ulster MP Martin McGuinness has said that figures purporting to show a 73% drop in unemployment in Mid-Ulster since 1997 hides the true cost of unemployment.

Mr McGuinness said:

"People in my constituency want to work. They want to see better living standards for themselves and better circumstances for their children.

"The work ethic and ingenuity of people in Mid Ulster has contributed ignificantly to the local economy and created employment.

"However, this is an area that has also suffered many job losses over the past decade as a result of the decline in manufacturing particularly in the textile industry. Unfortunately statistics hide this.

"There has been an increase in the number of people who are classified as economically inactive by the department. Across the north almost 30% of people are classified as economically inactive.

"These are people not in work and who have been taken out of the Œofficial‚ unemployment figures. These people are struggling financially and are at greatest risk from poverty - rural poverty, child poverty and fuel poverty.

"It is vital that we target resources to areas most in need and develop strategies to bring real jobs into the constituency. This must bring in more than low paid and part time jobs. I want quality jobs in Mid Ulster."ENDS

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Sinn Fein Spokesperson on Children and Young People, West Belfast MLA Sue Ramsey has said that the Budget announced by direct rule ministers has betrayed children and young people living in the north of Ireland.

Ms Ramsey said:

"While there are a number of significant developments in the budget announced this week from what was a totally unacceptable draft budget, it is difficult to escape the fact that there will be less money available to meet the needs of our children and young people not more.

"There continue to be fundamental concerns shared by almost everyone working with and for children and young people about the failure to resource the Children's Fund and the planned 10-year Children and Young People Strategy.

"The provision of £15 million over 3 years to resource new proposals such as the Capital Modernisation Fund, which children's groups can apply to, are to be welcomed. But this is no way makes up for the decision to scrap the Children's Fund and the £27 million per year that allowed it to support vital services.

"It is also good to finally see a commitment to develop the Children and Young People strategy through mainstream services, but we need to see the detail and we need to see new resources committed to support its implementation.

"The reality is that less is never more. There will also continue to be pressures on the health and education budgets that will see cuts and services across the Health Boards and the Education Library Boards will be damaged. Despite clear commitments to deliver for our children and young people what is being proposed by British direct rule ministers will only undermine and damage services. Given the high levels of child poverty this is inexcusable. This is a betrayal of children and young people living in the north of Ireland." ENDS

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Sinn Fein Regional Development Spokesperson and Assembly member for Foyle, Raymond McCartney has described Finance Minister, Ian Pearson's budget proposals as 'ludicrous'. Speaking after travelling to Derry on one of NIRs newly launched carriages, Mr.McCartney commented:

"It is both ironic and disappointing that after travelling on this the first of 23 new train carriages acquired by Translink, to learn that Ian Pearson betrayed Draft Priorities of October 1st 2004 and decreased the Department for Regional Development budget by 8.8%.

"The figures put forward by the Minister in October of this year were clearly not even close to redressing more than three decades of neglect of the transport and water infrastructure in the North of Ireland. With the announcement of this revised budget, the Minister is clearly out of touch with the concerns raised in the four hundred submissions he received. This type of governance is not acceptable and it is certainly not accountable. To suggest that there is an increase in this budget is dishonest.

"The British Government stated three key areas that this budget would address: economic competitiveness; building equality and community cohesion; and better public services

"Yet it is impossible to see how decreasing investment from £483.4m to 385.4m over 2005-8, will improve economic competitiveness on our outdated rail network. Where is the vision to develop freight or maximise the potential of the two strategically positioned distribution sites in the ports of Lisahally in Derry and Larne.

"The potential to develop an all-Ireland network to deliver a rail and transport service to major urban population centres as well as rural communities. The Belfast-Dublin Corridor must be allied to a Western Corridor, linking Derry to all major transport routes right along the West of Ireland. Our rural communities are among the most socially and economically deprived yet this budget does not hold out much hope for the regeneration our rural communities, which can only be built upon an accessible rural transport network.

"This budget and Investment Strategy will not promote equality or community cohesion because the most vulnerable in our society will suffer severe hardship from the double taxation of the Water Charge. These plans are not driven by an EU Directive on Water & Waste Treatment. The Minister knows that the imposition of this double levy is a serious cause for concern.

"Privatising our services is not the answer. The reliance of PFI and PPP to

develop our services will not deliver the services we so desperately need.

Unaccountable Direct Ministers and non-elected bodies such as the Strategic

Investment Board are making key decisions now about the future." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew said that Sinn Fein are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of British ID cards. Ms Gildernew said:

"Sinn Fein are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of any voluntary or compulsory British ID card.

"Under the Good Friday Agreement people in the North have the right to Irish

or British identity (or both). Far from being an effective tool for anything, these cards would undermine not just civil liberties but also fundamentally the right of people living in the north to their Irish identity. Should Irish citizens in the North have to carry such a British ID card or there is there any basis for the British government have the right to hold biometric and other information on Irish citizens?

"The costs would also be considerable, individually and possibly to our overstretched local budget.

"The track record of the British government on delivering any similar computerised scheme, for example such as the Tax Credits system, has already proven to be deeply flawed. I wouldn't trust the government to introduce this measure in a sensible confidential manner. Any system the government has introduced involving technology in the past few years has been shambolic.

"Also within the context of a deeply divided and sectarian society the opportunity for authorities here to abuse a database of this nature and the ability of agencies such as the PSNI to use such information or ID cards to discriminate against nationalist is huge.

"The argument that this will tackle fraud is bogus. We heard these arguments when the British government introduced new electoral legislation that resulted in thousands of nationalists and young people being disenfranchised. People who fall through the system will become truly excluded and marginalised from society." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Agriculture, Martin Ferris TD, has called on the Irish Government to explain why the Minister for the Environment abstained on a vote at the Council of Ministers yesterday where a proposal to authorise a genetically modified rapeseed product for animal feed failed to secure the necessary majority. Ireland was one of six member states to abstain.

Deputy Ferris said: "I welcomed the Irish Government's decision in June to abstain at committee level as this at least represented a retreat from earlier support for the lifting of embargos on GM products. I again welcome the decision by Minister Dick Roche not to vote in favour of this product but I believe that we are entitled to know on what basis the decision was made given that

scientific evidence regarding the effects which the Monsanto oilseed rape has had on rats which were fed the product would indicate that it is potentially harmful to animals. I will be placing questions to the Minister regarding the evidence available to him and the basis on which the Irish decision to abstain was made. If it is unsafe then surely the position ought to be to oppose. Apart from the safety issues, however, I would contend that genetically modified animal feed is totally unnecessary and that its introduction to this country would have disastrous effects on the international reputation of Irish food produce."ENDS

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Sinn Féin candidate for the Meath by-election, Councillor Joe Reilly has described a survey on GPs working hours and their inability to give full medical information to patients, as a "further indication of a failed and discredited health service".

The survey found that 61% of General Practitioners do not have the time to fully explain the details about prescribed medicines to patients, and further revealed that a GPs average working week is between 70 - 90 hours. The survey was commissioned by the Irish Patients' Association and conducted by MORI.

Speaking this afternoon Cllr Reilly said:

"This survey clearly exposes the failure of the Fianna Fáil/PD Government to deliver on its promise in the 'National' Health Strategy to develop Primary Care as the mainstay of the health service. As the first point of contact with patients, the GP system is under severe strain and like the A&E units in our hospitals they are finding it extremely difficult to manage with the numbers of patients attending.

"This mornings report presents a gloomy assessment of the state of the medical profession. The survey reveals that 6 out of 10 family doctors are unable to give their patients full information on prescribed medication because of the sheer volume of patients. This is a wholly unacceptable situation with many people leaving a doctor‚s surgery without receiving vital instructions on how to use their medicine.

"45% of GPs have advised patients to speak with their pharmacist about their medicine. However, many patients only feel comfortable speaking in confidence with their GP about a medical condition. 44% of GPs have advised patients to use the Internet, even though many people have no access to a computer.

"The sheer volume of hours worked by GPs (on average between 70-90 hours per week) is a clear sign that they are overstretched. Even with such long work hours, many GPs are unable to fully explain the details of prescribed medication to patients.

"Once again the Irish people are forced to endure a second class and second rate health system. The people of this state demand a first class health system, where they are not forced to languish on trolleys or forced to leave their doctor‚s surgery without knowing how many tablets to take. Investment in primary health care and more GPs are required if we are to redress the years of under-funding and neglect." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health spokesperson, John O Dowd MLA has said that today's Department of Health report into inequalities of health in the North's population is an indictment of the complete failure of the Northern State and the British government to offer basic equality of treatment to Nationalists.

Mr O'Dowd said:

"This British government report shows the basic human right of having proper and equal access of health care is disproportionately denied to nationalists. Their own report clearly states:

  • Those areas with the worst access to health and social care facilitates have a higher proportion of Catholics
  • A person living in a deprived area (the majority of which are catholic) is 34% more likely to die than a similar person living in a non-deprived area of the North.
  • Lung cancer rates for all persons are 57% higher in deprived areas than elsewhere in the North
  • In areas with the worst health outcomes, there are higher proportions of Catholics, nationalists and single people.

"This report is a shocking indictment of the failure of the Northern state to provide equal access to proper health care for all citizens. Through a combination of low-paid or no jobs, poor housing and living environment and poor diet due to a lower income, Nationalists are less likely to have good health. In short they are still second-class citizens. If any other government or country were to be the subject of a report, which highlighted such major systemic and institutionalised discrimination, it would quite correctly attract international scrutiny and criticism.

"Today's budget announced by Ian Pearson will have a further negative impact on health service provision in the Six Counties and will do nothing to improve the glaring health inequalities which this report has exposed. Indeed, this budget will only serve to exacerbate these existing health inequalities with essential services, such as domiciliary care, child care provision and community-based health provision being further cut or totally withdrawn from those areas which suffer most from deprivation and disadvantage.

"Seven years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and 30 years after the fall of Stormont, this report shows the Northern state cannot provide basic health care on an equitable basis. This in turn shows that the British government is failing in its internationally agreed duty to provide Nationalists with the basic human and civil right of proper health care. Quite clearly, the British Government needs to take effective action to effectively implement the equality agenda across all spectrums of life in the Six Counties, and particularly so in relation to health.

"Indeed, I have today called for an urgent meeting with the NIO health minister, Angela Smith, to discuss the details of this report in the context of the budget for the health department announced by her colleague Ian Pearson." ENDS

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Sinn Féin national Chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin has said that the refusal of direct rule ministers to listen to the widespread concerns about the impact of their proposed budget is a betrayal of the priorities and commitments agreed by local elected representatives in the Assembly and Executive.

Mr McLaughlin said:

"This budget 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.

"If you strip away the costs of inflationary pay increases and pressures from new GP and consultant contracts, the Agenda for Change, increased statementing for children with Special Education Needs then there will be serious deficits in both Health and Education. This budget demonstrates that direct rule ministers have failed to secure the money required to maintain and develop services.

"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. This is no way to set about tackling the long term deficit in investment in infrastructure particularly in our roads, rail, water and sewerage and hospital and education systems.

"The refusal of direct rule ministers to listen to the genuine concerns of not just democratically mandated politicians but also a range of community and voluntary organisations only serves to highlight the undemocratic nature of direct rule." ENDS

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Sinn Féin Health spokesperson, Upper Bann MLA John O Dowd has said that the significant reduction in staffing levels in the Midwifery Led Unit in Craigavon area Hospital is 'complete madness'.

Cllr O'Dowd said:

"Sinn Féin are concerned at this staff reduction and the matter has been raised with us by local parents, some of whom have had babies delivered in the midwife led maternity unit (MLU) and expectant mothers who would be keen to use its services in the near future.

"The MLU was set-up in 2000 and since has been both nationally and internationally recognised for its work and the dedication of its staff, it is a Unit the entire Health Service can and must be proud of. People are angry at these cuts.

"Staff and patients are at a loss to see how this change can be justified on either clinical or financial grounds. As the local branch of the Chid Birth Trust correctly state 'the local community is extremely proud of the unit, particularly due to its uniqueness within Ireland. It provides a model for the proposed Community Midwifery Units, as announced by the Minister in July past'.

"I have written to both Chief Executive of the Hospital and Health Minister Angela Smith urging them to ensure staffing levels at the MLU are restored and the future of the Unit is secured. This unit is unique on the island of Ireland it would be complete madness to disrupt staffing levels or damage the future of the unit in any way." ENDS

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North Antrim Sinn Féin MLA, Philip McGuigan, has slammed Direct Rule Minister Barry Gardiner for the current funding crisis within the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB). His comments follow an emergency meeting with NEELB Chief Executive Gordon Topping, which he attended with party colleagues Cllr Oliver McMullan and Daithí McKay.

Mr McGuigan said:

"The decision by the British Government to starve the NEELB of funding means that the Education Board will in all likeliness have to cut jobs, cut services and cut front-line education over the next number of years.

"The NEELB are already £7 million short of what they need to maintain this year's service, never mind improving upon it. School-workers, lollipop men and women, parents and pupils will all feel the effects of this to varying degrees. Regardless of what the Minister says funding is being cut and it will impact on front-line services.

"If we compare the performance of the Direct Rule Minister Barry Gardiner with the Assembly Education Minister Martin McGuinness, it is obvious that the former man's decisions show a lack of understanding of education in the North. Not only are the Education Boards being sapped of funding, but when we look at rural schools in North Antrim in places like The Braid, the parish of Ahoghill and The Glens that are now at risk of closure Mr Gardiner's decisions are actually damaging our children's education and the rural way of life in the North." ENDS

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Martin McGuinness MP MLA for Mid Ulster has expressed his deep shock at the burglary at the home of an elderly brother and sister near Coalisland which has left the brother dead and his sister badly injured. Mr McGuinness offered his condolences to the family on the death of Mr Mc Grath and wished Miss McGrath a speedy and full recovery.

Mr McGuinness said, "This apparent burglary was a brutal attack on vulnerable elderly people. I would urge local people to be vigilant and look out for elderly neighbours who are clearly an easy target for this type of incident. I am shocked and abhorred that individuals in our society are so devoid of feelings that they can find subjecting our senior citizens to this brutality acceptable. At this time of year - a time of goodwill and giving - it is particularly sad to hear this news and even more distressing to realise that it was as a result selfish thuggery against elderly people.

"While it is as yet unclear as to the cause of Mr McGrath's death I understand that his sister has suffered physical injury and no doubt trauma from this incident. I extend sincere condolences to the McGrath family circle and wish Miss McGrath a speedy and full recovery."ENDS

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Press Conference, Bogota, Columbia
Bring Them Home Campaign
Monday 20th December 2004, 10:30 am (local time)

The Bring Them Home Campaign and lawyers for Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley will hold a press conference at the lawyers' office in central Bogota today, Monday 20th December 2004 at 10.30am local time.

Speaking ahead of the Press Conference chairperson of the Bring Them Home Campaign, Ms Caitriona Ruane said:

"We came out to Columbia to discuss the legal options open to the men in light of the recent judgement by the Columbian magistrates.

"In April 2004 Judge Acosta found the three men innocent on the serious charge of training the FARC and ordered an investigation into the two 'eye witnesses' brought to the trial by the Attorney General's Office.

"This very public trial lasted 10 months. The world's media, international observers, Human Rights Groups and the Irish government were present.

"It was obvious to everyone that the prosecution case collapsed and serious questions were being asked about the role of the Attorney General's Office in fabricating evidence and preparing witnesses to perjure themselves.

"Six and a half months later following an appeal by the Attorney Generals Office, we have a decision by three magistrates who met behind closed doors, who never spokes to any of the witnesses or defence lawyers.

"It is also important to note that in this appeal no new evidence was presented.

"The judgement is 144 pages long, 32 of these pages repeated the prosecution arguments, and not even one page in this judgement was given to the defence

arguments.

"The magistrates overturned Judge Acosta's judgement and sentenced the three men to 17 years and 6 months.

"This is a political judgement made by the Columbian Authorities.

"What we now have is the Attorney General Luis Camilo Oforio and his office trying to drum up international support for this decision. His record stands, he is the problem and is bringing disrepute top the Columbian legal system.

"This is a travesty of justice of international proportions.

"Having met with the lawyers we are now exploring every legal option left open to the men. The lawyers are currently consulting experts in relation to this.

"We are planning to bring the case of these three Irishmen and EU citizens to the EU parliament.

"This campaign will continue, intensify and internationalise these cases. We are not prepared to accept this blatant violation of the rights of Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley." ENDS

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