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“Workers’ Right to Disconnect Should not be delayed” - MEP MacManus

Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus has expressed his disappointment at the passing of an amendment to a European Parliament report regarding the ‘Right to Disconnect’. MacManus said, “this amendment long fingers legislative action for the right of workers to disconnect outside of working hours’. 

Speaking from Brussels MacManus said:

“In this era of huge advancements in new technologies, lifestyle changes such as working from home are becoming more attractive for many workers. We have seen a huge uptake in persons remote working since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that means that it is important we legislate for the right of workers to disconnect when not inside their allocated working hours. 

“MEPs voted on a proposal for the right of workers to disconnect. Whilst I recognise this is an important step forward as it is the first time the right to disconnect has been legally recognised by the European Parliament, I was disheartened to see an amendment from regressive forces within the Parliament calling for a three-year delay before the Commission implements any legislative action. This grace period is unacceptable.” 

“Workers are experiencing stresses from out of work hours emails, whatsapps, texts and calls. Solutions need to be found now, not in three years’ time. There was no grace period offered to workers when employers began to contact them at out of work hours, therefore there should be no grace period for employers to cease this practice.”

The Midlands Northwest MEP concluded, “Thankfully workers in Ireland may not have to wait as long for the right to disconnect. My colleague, Sinn Féin spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade, Employment and Workers’ Rights Louise O’Reilly TD has introduced a bill to give workers in Ireland a legal right to disconnect and I am pleased that her work in Dublin is leading the way for offering workers a better work/life balance.” ENDS

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Sinn Féin MP Órfhlaith Begley has welcomed the announcement that part of the Dublin Road in Omagh will be resurfaced and provision made for cyclists and pedestrians. 

The West Tyrone MP said: 

 “I welcome the announcement today that the Department for Infrastructure will dedicate £300,000 to resurfacing a section of the Dublin Road in Omagh and to make increased provision for active travel with a new cycling lane and footpath. 

 “The work will begin on the 1st of February and includes the section of the road from the traffic signals at Great Northern Slip Road toBelvedere Park. 

 “This investment will be welcomed by the local community and greatly enhance road safety for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. 

 “Sinn Féin will continue to actively campaign for increased investment to improve roads in West Tyrone and to ensure that active travel measures are prioritised in any plans.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Social Protection, Claire Kerrane TD, has urged the Government to prioritise introducing the 3 weeks’ Parent’s Leave and Benefit which was promised in the Budget over 3 months ago.

Speaking in the Dáil today, Teachta Kerrane warned the Government that the delay in enacting this pledge has forced parents, including those with newborn babies to take unpaid leave, and urged the Tánaiste to act.

She said:

“Many parents are waiting for this. The only option available up to now for them has been to take unpaid parental leave which many of them simply cannot afford to take.

“Many parents, especially those who have had new babies, haven’t been able to return to work after their maternity leave has ended and they have been left with no option. They cannot access childcare and their only option is unpaid parental leave.

“So I want to ask you Tánaiste, the legislation is listed as a priority - when will that legislation be brought to the House? And how quickly will parents be able to avail of this three weeks parents’ leave?”

She added:

“I was disappointed by the Tánaiste’s response as he does not appear to grasp the importance of ensuring this happens quickly.

“Many families are being badly affected by this delay. Their finances are already tight and they should not have to face the financial burden of this Government’s inaction. 

“This is something they are entitled to and will make a real difference to the finances of thousands of families. This delay is unacceptable.

“I have also written to Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman as he is due to bring in the legislation, setting out my concerns and highlighting the importance of this being enacted quickly.

“Another issue I raised in the Dáil today is the need to publicise changes to PUP eligibility criteria which have extended eligibility to parents who are unable to work due to school closures or lack of childcare.

“It is vital that parents are made aware of this important change, so that they can receive the social welfare support they are entitled to. I have asked the Government to ensure work is done to raise awareness of this change.

“Many families are currently under huge financial pressure and the Government must do all it can to help to them."

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Ireland in tax spotlight again as EU Parliament calls out Fine Gael’s policies

Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus has said Fine Gael’s corporation tax policies have once again thrown Ireland’s corporation tax schemes into the spotlight, with the EU Parliament declaring Ireland a tax haven. He said Fine Gael’s infamous intangible assets tax scheme and policies on royalties and dividends now mean Ireland is regarded as a tax haven by the Parliament.

MacManus said:

“Once again, Ireland is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The EU Commission’s “Country Specific Recommendations” for Ireland have called for action on the facilitation of aggressive tax planning. The lack of action from successive Irish governments now means, in the view of the Parliament, that Ireland is to be regarded as a tax haven.”

“Those who oppose Ireland’s tax sovereignty now have another weapon with which to push for tax harmonisation and a minimum corporation tax rate across Europe as this resolution calls for. For that reason and because Ireland is entitled to due process before being named and shamed I abstained on this resolution but there is no doubt that Fine Gael’s tax policies are doing huge damage to Ireland’s reputation and making EU tax harmonisation more likely.”

The Midlands Northwest MEP said “Tax Havens have a huge cost to the world and cannot be ignored. They allow billions of euro that could be used on public services and investment to be hidden away shifting the tax burden onto workers. We cannot be hypocrites, what is good as a standard for a Caribbean island is good for EU countries. If a genuine test, rather than a political exercise, shows Ireland is a tax haven then it should be treated the same as any other tax haven.”

MacManus concluded by calling on the government to take responsibility. “The Irish government must act as Sinn Féin have proposed, by ending the element of the intangible assets scheme whereby assets already onshored are exempt from the 80% cap and by supporting public country by country reporting. Patience is wearing thin and Ireland’s moral ground is shifting away rapidly.” ENDS

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Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy has welcomed the findings of an inquest which said that the killing of a man by the British army in Tyrone in 1974 was unjustified. 

The Mid Ulster MP said: 

"Today's ruling at the inquest of Paddy McElhone which found that his killing by the British army near Pomeroy in 1974 was unjustified is welcome news for his family, and the community in Pomeroy. 

"The young farmer was 24 years-old when he was taken from his home at Limehill and shot dead by a British soldier. The coroner has now said that he posed no threat and was unjustifiably killed in cold blood.  

"Since his killing, the McElhone family have campaigned for the truth and today's verdict is a result of their determination and perseverance. 

"This is a vindication for the McElhone family who have campaigned for truth for all these years. Their determination is an inspiration for all those who continue to seek truth about the deaths of their loved ones.

"This finding comes on the day when 3,500 relatives of victims of the conflict have signed a joint letter to the British Prime Minister and An Taoiseach calling for the immediate implementation of the outstanding legacy mechanisms within the Stormont House Agreement. 

“It is time for the British Government to stop prolonging the heartache of victims and allow families to access the truth that they deserve.”

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Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon has welcomed the introduction of the Protection from Stalking Bill. 

The party’s Justice Spokesperson said: 

“Stalking is a deeply insidious, invasive psychological form of criminal abuse with shocking side effects and consequences for victims. 

“It is regrettable that we do not yet have a specific criminal offence of stalking, but it is to be welcomed that this is now being addressed. 

“Sinn Féin made a submission to the consultation on stalking legislation and I am very pleased that all of our recommendations have been included in the Bill, including: a new specific offence of stalking; greater penalties than existing offences of harassment; and the introduction of Stalking Protection Orders for which breaches will be made a criminal offence. 

“I understand the serious harm that stalking can cause to an individual and their families, and in some cases it can even tragically result in the loss of life. 

“This legislation is therefore essential to protect future victims of stalking and I hope that this can be done urgently."

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Public Expenditure and Reform, Mairéad Farrell TD, has described the €292k salary of the new Secretary General of the Department of Health, as ‘shocking’ and said that the Government has serious questions to answer, after Simon Harris contradicted Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s claims that the Cabinet had approved this €81k pay rise.

Teachta Farrell, who also serves as the Vice Chair of the Budgetary Oversight Committee, said: 

“The Tánaiste claimed that the decision to increase Robert Watt’s salary significantly above the top threshold was approved by Cabinet, and yet at the same time Simon Harris has told us that the decision wasn’t brought before Cabinet. So, it seems the claims don’t add up.

 “At a time when many PUP recipients are being retrospectively taxed, government Ministers are saying that it’s important that the Oireachtas gets the opportunity to scrutinise the salary of the Secretary General. 

“The Taoiseach has already said that this is a matter for Minister McGrath and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar similarly said this was a matter for Minister McGrath. 

“I believe it is high time we got some clarity on this and that Minister McGrath took ownership of this decision. I am calling on him to come before the Dáil and make a statement on the matter."

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Darren O RourkeSinn Féin spokesperson on Transport Darren O’Rourke TD today proposed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs that significant funding from the Brexit adjustment fund should be allocated to support the freight, distribution and logistics sectors here given the impact Brexit has had on these industries.

Speaking this afternoon, the Meath East TD said:

“I have met with a number of freight companies in recent weeks to seek their feedback on the reality of Brexit on the ground for hauliers here.

“They have outlined the breath of challenges they now face on a daily basis as a consequence of Brexit.

“While some of these changes will unfortunately be permanent as a result of the new trading arrangements with Britain, we believe the government here can do more to help hauliers adapt to the new challenges.

“This afternoon in the Dáil, I asked Minister Simon Coveney to ensure a significant allocation from the Brexit adjustment fund is secured to support the freight, distribution and logistics sectors here, given the impact Brexit has had on them, and also to ensure investment is made in our port infrastructure on an all-island basis.

“I also highlighted the need for the state to step in, via PSO routes if necessary, to ensure we have enough direct shipping capacity to the continent.

“Hauliers have said the current services are not adequate, with existing ferries overbooked, resulting in further delays in the supply chain.

“A six-month adjustment period, as is happening in Britain, should be introduced to assist companies that are dealing with a huge change in operations.

“Businesses are already facing massive challenges due to Covid-19. We need some flexibility and common sense in this area.

“Furthermore, the issues with the Revenue IT systems need to be addressed as a matter of priority as this is causing further headaches for freight companies and lorry drivers.

“It is essential that these bugs in the system are fixed now before increased levels of trade resume in the coming weeks and months.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Housing Eoin Ó Broin TD has commented on the publication of the Heads of the Affordable Housing Bill 2021, stating that it ‘must get detailed pre-legislative scrutiny at the Oireachtas Housing Committee’.

He also described the shared equity loan proposals as ‘deeply worrying’.

Teachta Ó Broin said:

“Minister Darragh O’Brien finally published the government’s affordable housing scheme last night.

“This is an important and controversial piece of legislation and must be subject to detailed pre-legislative scrutiny by the Oireachtas Housing Committee.

“The decision to plough ahead with the shared equity proposals as a mechanism to deliver affordable homes is concerning.

“We know from Britain that these schemes benefit developers the most, increase the cost of new homes and place a greater debt burden on homeowners.

“The scheme will do nothing to reduce the actual purchase cost of a new home.

“In terms of the other 'affordability measures' referenced in the affordable housing scheme, the definition of cost rental is worrying as it is based on a discount of market rent rather than recovering the economic cost of the property.

“Sinn Féin strongly support affordable cost rental and Council led affordable purchase schemes so long as they are designed to deliver genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy for working people.

“I hope the Minister does things the right way this time with this General Scheme and refers it to the Housing Committee so we can conduct detailed scrutiny of the proposals.

“The Minister must not try and circumvent the housing committee on this occasion as he did with the Land Development Agency Bill and the Residential Tenancies Bill.”

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The events of the last year have highlighted the need for a different approach to growing the economy so that no one is left behind.

We need to create space to help people with No or Low qualifications to find work.

A new skills strategy is needed to give people the tools to be able to secure meaningful employment.

It needs to be ambitious, radical and focus on tackling regional inequalities.

Sinn Féin is launching a new policy aimed at improving tackling regional inequality through supporting apprenticeships and job opportunities.

This will create more opportunities for young people to help them find a job.

This will not only boost the economy, it will also help the mental health and wellbeing of young people.

This new employability framework that Sinn Féin sets out, will help people escape the clutches of poverty, deprivation and inequality.

All of this will help transform our society.

By creating jobs and more opportunities we give young people, workers, families and communities a break.

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health David Cullinane TD has said more information is needed on the delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Waterford TD welcomed news that HSE and private carers will be vaccinated as part of priority group 2, but has said more clarity is needed on whether family carers are in group 2, 6, or 10.

He also welcomed a commitment to ensure that pharmacists, dentists, and their staff, are vaccinated as a matter of urgency.

Teachta Cullinane said:

“I welcome clarity that HSE home help and carers, as well as private sector carers and dentists, will be vaccinated as part of priority group 2.

“There is still uncertainty for family carers who cannot be forgotten.

“Some have been told they are group 10 I have been told that they could be group 6 or even group 2.

“This needs to be resolved urgently. They deserve clarity after all they have sacrificed.

“We are also getting a lot of queries from people with disabilities and chronic illnesses in very high risk categories, such as people with cystic fibrosis, who are waiting to find out when they will be vaccinated.

“To ensure that we can vaccinate vulnerable people quickly, every effort needs to be made to maximise the number of doses arriving in on a weekly basis.

“We need more information on the delivery of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

“I met with representatives of AstraZeneca a number of months ago and they told me that advance manufacturing of the vaccine was underway.

“The Minister needs to be clear – how much of this is already manufactured, and will all of the advance manufactured doses be delivered after approval?

“The details in the Minister’s response were vague and it is not clear how much is advance manufactured.

“It is important that we get as much of it in as possible early on. This will allow us scale up the vaccine rollout rapidly.

“The Minister is leaning very heavily on the Commission – he should be directly engaging with the pharmaceutical companies to get this information into the public domain.”

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MEP MacManus calls for EU Commission review to bring transport funding to the West 

This week in the European Parliament, MEPs are preparing for the review of EU transport funding, which will be proposed by the European Commission later this year. Chris MacManus, MEP for the Midlands-North West, spoke about how he hopes this will bring funding towards the West and overturn the Irish government's long held policy of neglect towards the region. In particular, he hopes that it will pave the way for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor in order to deliver balanced regional development, attract investment and provide greater employment opportunities for communities in the west. Speaking from Brussels, he said:

“I voted in favour of Parliament's own-initiative report on TEN-T revision. This report comes ahead of the legislative proposal of the Commission which will come later this year, to revise the TEN-T. The Commission will make a proposal based on both its engagement with Members States, and the open public consultations which were carried out throughout 2019. This proposal is eagerly awaited, and Sinn Fein has repeatedly called for a revision of the TEN-T to include the west of Ireland and pave the way for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor providing a rail link from Athenry to Claremorris initially, eventually being extended on to Sligo, Donegal and Derry, connecting the entire western seaboard.”

“The TEN-T is the EU's programme to fund transport. It is clear that the TEN-T must be revised to reflect the climate crisis and to prioritise investment in sustainable transport. I welcome that this report highlights the need for further EU investment in rail, and this is an area where Ireland falls behind other EU member states.”

The Midlands Northwest MEP said potential funding must be invested in the regions that need it most. “In voting for this report, I hope that a revised TEN-T would place Ireland's Western Arc on the TEN-T Core network so that the Government can use EU transport funding to invest in rail in the region that needs it most - the west of Ireland. The TEN-T core network receives 85% of EU funding, and so far the Irish government has repeatedly earmarked this funding for the Eastern seaboard and to the detriment of Western regions.”

“If the upcoming Commission proposal does not change Ireland's TEN-T Core map, we will know that once again the Irish government has failed to prioritise the West and failed to communicate its funding needs to the European Commission. EU transport funding for the West would connect and lift up the hubs and towns across the West, allowing people to live, work and commute within the West.”

“In particular the re-instalment of the Western Rail Corridor would bring great economic benefits and contribute significantly to reversing the decline of our region. It would provide an enormous boost to communities across the west and north-west and allow these areas to compete with other regions in attracting both foreign and indigenous investment, growing jobs and ensuring that these communities have a sustainable future.”

MacManus said successive governments have neglected the west of Ireland.  “This campaign has been long in the running, and the people of the West are tired of the government's mixed messaging. Every election we see support for the Western Rail Corridor from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil representatives, yet in government they do in fact get to decide where to prioritise EU funding, and fail each time to put the West on the TEN-T Core network.”

The Sinn Féin MEP concluded by calling for the regional imbalances to be addressed. “It doesn’t make sense to repeatedly invest in Ireland's already well-developed areas, when transport investment in the West would benefit our rural and peripheral regions, while ensuring that we follow a trajectory of balanced regional development. I will continue to keep a sharp eye on this issue and push for EU transport funding for regions that need it most.” ENDS

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Rose Conway-Walsh TD launches student wellbeing survey

You can take part in Sinn Féin’s student wellbeing survey at this link

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Rose Conway-Walsh TD, has today launched an online wellbeing survey to capture the impact of Covid-19 on third-level students.

Speaking at the Launch, Teachta Conway-Walsh said:

“We want to hear directly from students in third-level on how they are coping with all the pressures related to Covid-19 and remote and blended learning.

“We are approaching one year of an extraordinary learning experience for college students. Some students have never even visited their campus or met any of their fellow students in person.

“In all likelihood they are facing at least another semester with very limited access if any to campus and all that comes with it.

“We know from students and parents who contact us that Covid has had a significant impact on mental health and wellbeing generally. We are setting out to measure that impact on students.   

“International research has produced alarming results regarding the impact Covid and public health restrictions have had on the mental health and wellbeing of students.

“Despite the huge effort made by all the staff of colleges, remote learning has substantial limitations from an educational perspective. However, the impact of the pandemic on student lives goes far beyond their formal education.

“We want to know how students are coping. What are the key sources of stress and pressure whether it is their living situation, loss of employment, Isolation, etc. We also want to look at the positives what has brought them comfort and helped them through.

“Whatever the issues a student is facing we want to hear from them and give voice to their experience.

“Only by really listening to students will we be able to support and assist them. This is why I am asking student to take a few minutes to complete and share this survey. I want to sincerely thank the SUI and all those who contributed to the design of this important survey.

You can take part in Sinn Féin’s student wellbeing survey at this link

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Thomas Gould TD and Mark Ward TD

Sinn Féin spokesperson for Mental Health Mark Ward TD and spokesperson for Addiction Thomas Gould TD will today introduce the Dual Diagnosis: No Wrong Door Bill 2021.

Dual Diagnosis refers to people who present for treatment who have substance misuse and mental health conditions.

Teachta Ward said:

“The Dual Diagnosis: No Wrong Door Bill is an important piece of legislation that aims to plug the gaps in services that exist between mental health and addiction.

"People who have a Dual Diagnosis often fall between these gaps. Addiction and mental health often go hand in hand.

"An addiction may lead to the onset of mental health issues or a mental health issue can lead to people using substances as a coping mechanism.

“Because of the inadequacies in the state's mental health system, people can turn to drink and drugs to give calm to an anxious inner world.

“This is where problems can occur. The mental health problems remain, but are added to by addiction problems.

“This bill will mean that no matter what door the person knocks on for help for addiction and mental health problems, that they are treated with dignity.

“A joint care plan between addiction and mental health services needs to be developed to make sure people get the care they need, when they need it and where they need it.

“There can be No Wrong Door for dual diagnosis treatment."

Teachta Gould said:

“I have been meeting addiction services on the ground for months now and this is an issue raised by almost every single one.

"When somebody in active addiction with mental health issues reaches out for help, no door should be shut in their face.

“Compassion, empathy and understanding are at the core of many of our addiction services. Unfortunately, they are not resourced or supported to deal with dual diagnosis.

“This legislation will progress the provision of dual diagnosis services across the state, which would have a knock-on effect for individualised case management plans.

“We need to recognise that addiction is not a stand-alone issue. Wraparound supports and services are the only way to properly help people succeed in their recovery."

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Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon has supported the call from relatives bereaved as a result of the conflict for the British and Irish governments to fully implement the mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the past from the Stormont House Agreement. 

Linda Dillon said: 

"I support the 3,500 relatives of people killed during the conflict who have written an open letter to the British prime minister and An Taoiseach calling for the full implementation of the legacy mechanisms agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. 

"These have been agreed by the main political parties and the two governments but the British government has abjectly refused to implement these measures.

“In doing so they have added to the hurt and grief of families, some of who have waited up to 50 years for the truth about what happened to their loved ones. 

"It is unacceptable that the families have had to take this step.

“I commend their dignity and determination and offer them our ongoing support. 

"Without addressing the legacy of the past the task of reconciliation is made so much harder. 

"The British government need to end its approach of blocking truth and frustrating families and finally implement what it has agreed in a human rights compliant manner." 

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Sinn Féin MLA Nicola Brogan today met with Education Minister Peter Weir to discuss progress on the Strule Shared Education Campus in Omagh. 

Speaking after attending the meeting with Órfhlaith Begley MP, Nicola Brogan said:

“We pressed Minister Weir for clarity on the progress of the Strule Shared Education Campus and to seek assurances that it remains a priority for his Department.

“We highlighted the frustration felt by the schools because of the delays to construction and reminded him that it is for his Department to ensure current school sites are maintained.

“The minister said he is confident that following a successful procurement process, construction work should begin by the end of 2021.

“Sinn Féin will continue to press minister Weir to ensure there are no more unnecessary delays.”

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Louise OR' ReillySinn Féin spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment Louise O’Reilly TD has said the government must stand ready to push for resolutions to problematic aspects in the outworking of the EU-Britain trade agreement.

Speaking this afternoon, Teachta O’Reilly said:

“All sides were both exhausted and contented when a trade agreement was finally reached between the European Union and Britain at the end of December.

“In negotiations, however, assumptions in relation to practical outworking of a deal are made by negotiating teams. These assumptions are often theoretical, abstract and academic compared with how the realities of the situation express themselves in practice, on the ground.

“This is most certainly the case with the new trading arrangements between the Ireland/EU and Britain.

“The current situation at ports and airports is an example of this as businesses and exporters battle to familiarise themselves with new trading terms, the outworkings of which are significant disruptions to trading and supply chains that have been built over decades.

“The low level of freight entering and exiting the state at the moment is masking the serious problems which are developing due to the complications of the new trading arrangement.

"In the past number of days, these complications have caused havoc for exportation and importation of goods for Irish businesses. If left unaddressed, these will only escalate.

“These problems are as a result of the complexity of the new trading arrangement, new paperwork and IT systems, and a some unforeseen consequences.

“There are other problems around rules of origin where goods sent from Europe to Ireland, or vice versa, stop off in Britain as part of the delivery process and are unpacked and repacked, resulting in the goods losing their free-tariff status.

“Solutions to some of these trade problems can be found at a national level but some will require flexibility and ingenuity on the part of the European Union. The government must stand ready to push for resolutions at EU level.”

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Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD has congratulated new US President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris on their inauguration.

Teachta McDonald said:

“President Biden carries the hopes of many in the United States and around the world. We do not underestimate the challenges facing the incoming administration, including the public health crisis and deep societal divisions which will take time to heal.

“There can be no doubt that there are unprecedented challenges ahead but today is a moment of hope for reconciliation and healing across the US. Things may never be the same, but with leadership they can be better.

“President Biden has long been a friend of Ireland. The connections between our nations are greater than any political alliance - they are bonds of history, family and friendship. The United States has stood with Ireland, including protecting our peace agreements in the Brexit process and President Biden has been a key friend in achieving this. 

“I look forward to working with the Biden administration as we continue to realise the transformative potential of the Good Friday Agreement in building a new, prosperous and united Ireland.

“I wish President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris well as we enter a new and defining chapter in our shared history in the spirit of hope, co-operation and partnership. I send them both my congratulations on their inauguration.”

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Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD has said that every effort must be now be made to press ahead for agreement with stakeholders to secure the speedy return of special education.

He said that commitments made to school staff by the government must be kept on the table and built on, and that the return of special education cannot be contingent on the full return of schools.

Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:

"Given the government's failure to ensure that special education reopened this week, there may be a temptation to walk away and to let this issue drift.

"That cannot happen. I appreciate there may be lingering tension between the Minister for Education and trade unions, but no one expects them to be best friends. They just need to work together - and get a result.

"Despite the denials of the government, they have absolutely failed in ensuring there was an agreement. There was no agreement. A shared objective exists - it always existed - but to secure agreement now requires real collaboration, which has been absent from the Minister's approach.

"I am concerned that the issue of special education will be rolled into the overall process of reopening schools. It can be considered in conjunction, but reopening special education must be an objective in and of itself.

"We want to see all schools reopened as soon as possible, once it is safe to do so. Schools are the best place for children to be and the best place to learn generally. However we all know that cannot be guaranteed and that public health advice will dictate the full reopening of schools.

"If a decision is made to delay the return of schools - until mid or even late February - it would be a profound tragedy if children with special educational needs are left behind yet again.

"We have always said that children with special educational needs must be a first priority for a return to school and we support this where it is being delivered in the north.

"But this cannot be contingent on the full return to school. It must be a separate objective and talks must continue on that basis.

"I note some of the last minute commitments made by the Minister yesterday. It is frustrating that these commitments seem to have been made when the die was more or less cast, given many of the issues these assurances sought to address have been well flagged since August.

"If the government is sincere in their efforts, then these commitments have to remain on the table and solutions need to be found to other outstanding issues, including; flexibility for high-risk staff, serial testing for staff, the 40% cut in the grant for PPE/sanitising to be reversed and the extension of supply panels.

"The government is focused on redirecting blame on anyone but themselves. This helps no one, especially children with special educational needs.

"We need work to continue to repair relationships and to deliver.

"It has been done elsewhere, and it can be done here, but we need a change of approach from Minister Foley, from Minister Madigan, and indeed the Taoiseach - who must take direct responsibility for fixing this mess."

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Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy has called on the British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to stop peddling nonsense around claims of vexatious charges and to instead focus on implementing the Stormont House Agreement.


The Mid-Ulster MP said:

“Today we have again witnessed the British Secretary of State Brandon Lewis dancing to the tune of British military jingoists and peddling this nonsensical narrative that the British prosecution service are pursuing ‘vexatious claims’ against British soldiers.

“The British Secretary of State must stop playing silly games with legacy and adding to the hurt and grief of families seeking truth about the death of their loved ones and instead place his energy into fulfilling outstanding legacy agreements.

“The British Government signed up to the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and it is long past the time for them to end stalling the implementation of this agreement.”

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