Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Mortgage Debt Advice Service

Mortgage debt is a major problem today and so I was glad to receive an evaluation of the Mortgage Debt Advice Service, which is funded by the Department for Social Development.

During the first twelve months of the pilot a total of 755 clients, from every parrliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland, used the service and a total of 1,970 housing issues were addressed.  The service directly prevented homelessness for 180 clients and included representation work at Chancery Division of the High Court.

The service is operated by the Housing Rights Service and is good value for money.  The total cost of the pilot was just £97,625 and so the cost per client helped was just under £130.  However it is estimated that the service resulted in a saving of over £1.2 million to the public purse.  This is based on 180 clients avoiding homelessness, where a homelessness case costs £6,840.

This is a good example of a modest investment providing a major return and helping people who have fallen into mortgage debt are being helped week by week.

Unfortunately some people bury their heads in the sand and hope the problem will go away.  As a result they leave it ery late and the problem is harder to address.  Anyone affected by mortgage debt should contact the service at the earliest possible stage.  In that way they are more likely to have a good outcome.

Make the Call campaign

Recently I launched a Make the Call campaign, which started on 14 November and runs until the end of March 2012.  It includes television, radio, outdoor and community locations and is reinforced through regional and local press.  The campaign encourages older people to call a Freephone Benefits Advice Line to find out if there are benefits (social, security and wider), services and support they could be missing out on.  The freephone number is 0800 2321271.

The first 8 days of operation saw 2,378 calls to the Freephone line and 2,225 people availed of a full benefit assessment.  Of these, just under 1,000, almost 45%, had potential additional benefits identified.  Customers were given a range of choices about making a claim and those requirign assistance were offered this, with 50 requiring a home visit to help them with making a claim.

The media generating the most interest was television, which generated 65% of the calls, followed by newspapers, which generated 18.4%, with radio at 9.2%

We are keen to increase beenfit uptake and this campaign has got off to a good start.  As another winter approaches, I remain committed to ensuring that benefits are reaching those who are entitled and need them most. It is important that we continue to encourage people over 60, who may be entitled to receive additional benefits, to come forward and find out if they are missing out.

Last year over 1,300 people profited from a simple benefit check, with the average additional weekly payment totalling almost £50 per week. That amounted to almost £4million being generated in 2010/11 in additional benefits and arrears. This is a substantial amount that can make a real difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our society.

I want older people to know that we are here to help them claim what they are entitled to and so I would encourage people to lift the phone and make the call.

Nialls wee phone call

One aspect of the controversy about Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O'Donnghaile that has not received much attention is the fact that at some point in the ceremony he went off to make or take a telephone call.  Now anyone who has been in the position of Lord Mayor for six months will know to turn their mobile phone off, or have it on silent and just ignore it.  However, according to some reports, he was on the phone during the ceremony.  Now on the basis of the above it is very unlikely that he was taking a call.  It is much more likely that he was making a call.

Indeed in those circumstances I would suspect that he was phoning some of his Sinn Fein superiors in Connolly House, or wherever, to get instructions on what to do.  Sinn Fein operates very much like a Stalinist party where nearly every decision, and certainly every significant decision, has to be taken in the centre or approved in the centre.

If he were challenged about this he might well deny it but that would prove very little.  Sinn Fein members have notoriously bad memories - Gerry Adams seems to have forgotten what he did in the Troubles and Martin can't remember being in the IRA after 1974.  Moreover this problem does not afflict only the older republicans.  Even the younger members have this same problem.  So there is probably little point in posing the question to Niall about who he was talking to and about what.

Vote on strike action


RESULTS - There was a 30.2% return in the ballot for industrial action, with 59.3% voting FOR strike action. As the UTU Rules and Constitution state that before any strike action can be declared two-thirds of those voting must be in favour. The UTU will not, therefore, be asking its members to take strike action.

I copied the above from the the website of the Ulster Teachers Union. Only 30.2% of members participated in the vote on strike action and of these 59.3% votes for strike action.  This means that 17.9% of UTU members voted for strike action and 82,1% either abstained or voted against it.

The proposal for strike action failed because of those who voted, less than 2/3 supported strike action.  The vote for strike action, which was 59.3% of those who voted, fell below the 66.6% required.

However it is the turn out on which I want to comment.  On a 30.2% turnout a vote of just 20% for strike action would have provided the 2/3 vote required by the union rules.

There seems to have been quite a difference in the turnout across the unions but overall the figures have been very low.  There have also been difference in the level of support for a strike and it would be interesting to compare the figures.

Low turn outs seem to be very common in union ballots and on this case the proposal for strike action failed. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The nasty side of Niall

Niall O'Donnghaile, a Sinn Fein councillor and Lord Mayor of Belfast, has certainly created a storm of controversy by his refusal to present a Duke of Edinburgh award to a young member of the Army Cadet Force at a ceremony in the City Hall.

He is a young mayor but certainly not inexperienced.  He worked for some time as a press officer for Sinn Fein in the Assembly and he is normally very media friendly and media savvy.

He has sought to present himself as a mayor for all the city but once again he has failed to live up to that claim and in so doing he has caused great offence.  Normally he tries to present a very personable image but last night the mask dropped and we saw the nasty side of Niall.

This was a snub to a young person whose dedication and achievements were being acknowledged.  Altogether 166 awards were being made and the Army Cadet Force is just one of a large number of youth organisations which make the Duke of Edinburgh programme available to all young people, Protestant and Roman Catholic.  To snub this young person in the way that he did was inexcusable.

A DUP councillor described the incident as 'a scandal', a UUP councillor said, 'He's bringing the office into disrepute', and the leader of the Alliance Party on the council said she was 'appalled'.  As yet the SDLP has not commented.  I welcome such cross-party disgust and I hope that this finds expression in the proper place, within the Council chamber.

I am sure that some who have rushed to invite Niall O'Donnghaile to events in unionist communities must now be reflecting on their decision and I am sure that others, who are contemplating extending invitations to him, will pause to think again.  This is not something that will blow over in a day or two.  It is another major blemish on his term in office.

I said that Niall O'Donnghaile is very media-friendly and that is reflected in the fact that the BBC has commissioned a documentary on his year in office.  An independent television company has been filming him during a number of mayoral engagements and indeed the company has requested to film the next Council meeting on Thursday evening.  In that context he could not have picked a worse time, from his point of view, to get it wrong.  He was obviously hoping for a council meeting that would show him in a good light but his snub to the young girl will undoubtedly be the subject of robust comment on Thursday evening and, if the television cameras are admitted, those comments will be made in front of the cameras and will become part of the documentary.

But in the midst of that controversy there is another matter which should not be overlooked.  Niall is certainly media-friendly but it seems that the BBC is also Sinn Fein-friendly.  The last time that the BBC commissioned a documentary on a Belfast Lord Mayor was in 2003 and that was Councillor Alex Maskey, another member of Sinn Fein.  Moreover, as far as I can recall, they are the only two mayors in recent years to be the subjects of a special BBC documentary.   There have been mayors from other political parties, DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance, but it seems that the only party to attract the interest of the BBC is Sinn Fein.  The BBC Charter requires the BBC to act in a balanced way but there is nothing balanced about this.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pro fide et patria

On Tuesday (23 November) the Irish News excelled itself in terms of cultural bigotry and sectarianism.  Page 18 carried the daily editorial, along with an Ian Knox cartoon and the Brian Feeney column.

Above the editorial was the newspaper's long-standing Latin motto 'Pro fide et patria' or in English, 'Faith and Country' or 'Faith and Fatherland'.  The nation is of course Ireland and the faith is Roman Catholicism.

Some parents at Ballykeigle in county Down want to develop their small country school with a strong Ulster-Scots cultural ethos and that was reported elsewhere in the newspaper.  However Ian Knox could not help himself and immediately produced a cartoon mocking the initiative.  This was the latest in a series of cartoons, stretching back over several years, in which Ian Knox has mocked Ulster-Scots culture.  Indeed his cultural prejudice towards Ulster-Scots culture is weel kent but is it the sort of cartoon that contributes to the building of a shared and better future?  The answer to that question is 'no' and indeed I can't think of any other mainstream newspapers that would tolerate such prejudice.  However it's nothing new for the Irish News, which in this context seems to pander to some of the baser elements in our society.

There are already a number of schools which integrate Ulster-Scots language and culture into the curriculum and indeed that is simply a reflection of the cultural rights of children, as set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Ballykeigle parents simply want to take it on to another level.  Irish culture is embedded in Roman Catholic maintained schools and in Irish medium schools; so are the cultural rights enjoyed by Irish children to be denied to Ulster-Scots children?

Surely, if we are to create a shared and better future, it must be cased on principles such as equity, diversity and tolerance.  Sadly the Irish News has failed to grasp that vision.

The rest of the page is taken up with an article by Brian Feeney in which he engages in a sectarian headcount, condemns a recent statement by Peter Robinson as 'puerile', and generally regards unionists as pretty dense and incompetent.  Again it's standard bigotry from Brian Feeney, whose articles often have a rather nasty aspect to them.

I don't know the reason why Brian is such a bitter individual although it may have something to do with his past failure as a nationalist politician.  But whatever the reason, his contributions are rather unpleasant and sectarian.  They are often the sort of thing one might expect in the Andersonstown News but certainly not in a mainstream newspaper.

And so back to the shared future.  The Irish News does pay lip service to that shared future but by providing a platform for prejudice and pandering to prejudice it actually works against what it would claim to promote.

In sharp contrast the Belfast Telegraph commented on the Ballykeigle issue in a much more thoughful and reflective manner and made some interesting points.  As a society we need informed debate about cultural traditions, which are central to a shared future, and newspapers can do so much to provide a platform for that debate.  Sadly it seems the Irish News is not up to the challenge.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Homelessness Week

This is Homelessness Week and tonight I visited the drop-in centre run by the Welcome Organisation at St Peter's Square in West Belfast.

On my arrival I was able to present a cheque for £70,000 to Ricki Rowledge, director of the Council for the Homeless NI.  They distribute this through many other providers, such as the Salvation Army, so that every homeless person has shelter and a warm meal on Christmas Day.

After that Sandra Moore, director of homelessness services with the Welcome Organisation, gave me a tour of their drop-in centre.  The centre provides a place of refuge during the day, a place to spend time, to talk to others and be safe and warm. It also provides facilities for showering and to wash clothes.

Welcome delivers a range of services for homeless people and rough sleepers in Belfast - the drop-in centre, a street outreach service and the Divis emergency crash bed facility for women.   Their primary aim is to reduce the number of people sleeping rough and help rough sleepers move off the streets in Belfast.

After seeing the services provided in the centre, I went out with several members of staff in the minibus for the street outreach service.  We drove around central Belfast and visited a number of the locations where people sleep rough, including the porch of a city centre church, an area of rough ground where people sleep beneath the trees and shrubs, or a doorway beside a shop.  Some others squat and sleep at night in derelict buildings.  Tonight was fairly mild but what must it be like for them when the weather is really cold?  Many of us pass these sites regularly and yet are unaware that they are used overnight by rough sleepers.

I was saddened to see the extent of the problem and yet very much impressed by the dedication of the outreach workers.

The reasons why people sleep rough are varied but they include alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.  Some people have a single issue but many others have several problems.  For example, many people with an alcohol or drug addication also suffer from mental illness.  Yet there are others who do not drink or use drugs and whose plight is entirely the result of mental illness.

Our driver knew the men and women he deals with by name.  Some are rough sleepers and some are on the verge of becoming rough sleepers.  He could spot a group of them standing in the shadows at a street corner, or another rough sleeper who was staggering around near Castle Junction.  Most are male but some are female - the ratio is about 6 to 1 - and some of them are very young.  One was a young woman who is just 23 and an alcoholic.

As a society, we should be a compassionate society and how we care for the most damaged and the most vulnerable people is a measure of that compassion. I was saddened to see so many people whose lives have been wrecked by addiction or trauma but deeply impressed by the work of the Welcome Organisation in reaching out to help them.

Some can be picked up and are willing to go into crisis accommodation overnight. Others refuse but can be helped out with a warm drink or some food. 

Welcome is one of a number of organisations that work in this field.  Recently I also visited the Depaul hostel for alcoholics, which is. in the docks area, and also the Depaul day centre in Londonderry.

The Department for Social Development has a Supporting People programme and there are clearly many folk in our society who need that support.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Sinn Fein and the Cenotaph

Belfast Lord Mayor and Sinn Fein councillor Niall O'Donnghaile has explained why he refused to participate in the Council's Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph.  He said that the service was 'heavily militarised'.  What a pathetic excuse!  The ceremony remembers SOLDIERS who served in the ARMY and fought in a WAR.  That's why there is military involvement in the ceremony and that's why it is 'militarist'

Moreover members of Sinn Fein have had no difficulty participating in commemorative events organised on behalf of an illegal terrorist army, the Irish Republican Army.

Nevertheless I can understand why Sinn Fein do not want to take part in remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph.  It may have something to do with the role of the IRA during the Second World War. 

Eire remained neutral in the war but many Ulstermen and Irishmen, Protestant and Roman Catholic, fought in the cause of freedom and democracy.  However while they were fighting the Nazis, on the battlefields of Europe and elsewhere, the IRA stayed at home and fought their own squalid little war. 

The IRA mounted a terrorist campaign in Great Britain, which included the notorious Coventry bombing.  Meanwhile, in Ulster and in Eire, they murdered a number of policemen, including several who were Roman Catholics.  Oh yes, and of course they collaborated with the Nazis, protecting Nazi spies and providing information to the Luftwaffe on potential targets in Belfast for the German bombers.  In their publication War News (21 November 1940), the IRA even praised Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
Oh here's to Adolph Hitler,
Who made the Briton's squeal.
Sure before the fight is ended,
They will dance an Irish reel.
There is a statue in Dublin  of the IRA chief of staff at that time, Sean Russell, and I believe it is the only statue in Europe in memory of someone who collaborated with the Nazis.  Russell even died on board a Nazi submarine.  That statue was erected by the National Graves Association, a core element in the republican movement, and IRA leaders attended the dedication of the statue. 

Sinn Fein seem to have no problem holding commemorative events for an IRA leader who collaborated with the Nazis.  As regards the Second World War, that seems to be their kind of remembrance.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Double glazing and houses

Today the Assembly debated the Programme for Government and I was able to announce several key commitments for the Department of Social Development.

Double glazing

Many Housing Executive houses do not have double glazing.  The total NIHE stock is around 90,000 houses and of these about 40% have double glazing but about 60% still have only single glazing.  Under my SDLP predecessors, Margaret Ritchie and Alex Attwood, little was done to address this problem and the Housing Executive told me that it would take until 2021, another ten years, before all their houses had double glazing.  This was unacceptable and I decided to make this matter a priority for the Housing Executive.

Our commitment is to have all Housing Executive properties double glazed within the term of this Assembly and so it will be done in four years instead of ten.  I would like to have done it sooner but the task is a major one, after so many years of neglect, and around 50,000 houses will have to be upgraded.  I have already asked the Housing Executive to come forward with a strategy to deliver this and I have also secured some additional funding this year to get the programme underway.

I was interviewed tonight on Radio Ulster and the item included an interview with a couple of senior citizens from Rathcoole, Jimmy and May McFarland, who were delighted by the announcement.  Jimmy explained that so much of the heat in their home was being lost through the windows and as a result they were faced with higher fuel costs.

At a time of rising energy prices and higher levels of fuel poverty, it was right to make this a priority.  It was the right decision and it was long overdue.  Improving the energy efficiency of houses is one of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty.

8,000 social and affordable houses

Another important commitment is to build 8,000 social and afordable homes over the next four years and we have set aside around £561.6 million. for this.

Both initiatives are good in themselves but they will also bring major benefit to the construction industry as well as the supply and delivery sectors.

These two announcements are good news stories and I know they will be warmly welcomed.  Devolution has to be about delivery and this is real delivery.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Londonderry - 'the glory of the Scotch-Irish'

Dr George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980) was an American academic and the author of Names on the Land: A historical account of place-naming in the United States.  This book was published in 1945 and then reprinted in 1958, 1967, 1972, 1986 and 2008.

In it he considered the influence of many groups on the place-names, including the Scotch-Irish:

Also among the non-English immigrants may be counted the Scotch-Irish, who brought with their scanty baggage (as has been said) three things of different worth to the new country - whiskey, the Presbyterian Church, and independence from Great Britain.  They were lean fighting-men whose ancestors in Ireland for three generations had known what it was to face 'the wolf and the wood-kern.'  A shrewd Pennsylvania governor settled them beyond the Germans, 'as a frontier, in case of any disturbance.'  Also they settled in New England far to the north, along the Merrimack.  Since they spoke English, though with a little northern burr, they established no new habit of naming, and took over the ways the English had already begun.  Moreover, they were not a very sentimental people, and of one name alone they seem to have been proud.  That was of the city they had held through one of the famous sieges of history, until at last King William's ship broke the boom, and came sailing up Lough Foyle.  The young man who saw those ships from the cathedral tower and fired a gun to signal the relief came years later as Pastor McGregor to settle in New Hampshire, and the town there too was named Londonderry.  That same name or its shortened form Derry was scattered across Pennsylvania and even farther west - in that name was the glory of the Scotch-Irish.
The Scotch-Irish in America and the Ulster-Scots in Ulster were indeed proud of that great siege and of the courage and fortitude of the defenders.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Twelfth protesters

Judgment has been reserved in a case involving 28 people accussed of staging an illegal sit-down protest on the Crumlin Road, near Ardoyne, as Orange lodges were due to return home on 12 July 2011.

All of the defendants are charged with obstructing lawful activity in a public place and some are also accused ot resisting arrest.  Deputy district judge Neil Rafferty reserved judgment and told lawyers he would notify them when he had reaqched his verdict.  His decision will certainly attract considerable attention.

The right of peaceful assembly is one of the most basic human rights in a liberal and democratic society and it is one that is highly valued around the world.  Those who sought to block the main road were attempting to deny others that basic human right.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


I have just come across an old cutting from the Irish Times.  In his column Words We Use, Diarmaid O Muirithe explains the word shend, which is still used by some Ulster-Scots speakers in the Ards peninsula.

According to the Scots dictionaries it means 'to chide, reprove; to confound; to disgrace.'  The word also has the meansing of 'mar, destroy, ruin' and from it we get the noun shendship, meaning 'ruin, confusion'.

A correspondent to Diarmaid recalled her mother saying, 'Don't dare go to church in that gaudy dress, you'll have us all shent.'

The word is from the Old English scendan, 'to put to shame, to injure.'

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Social Security Agency's Innovation Fund

This is the speech I delivered today at the launch of the Innovation Fund in Belfast City Hall:

Tackling poverty has never been a more crucial issue for Government in Northern Ireland than in the present economic climate.  People at all levels of society across Northern Ireland are feeling the impacts of the current recession and it is more important than ever that the Social Security Agency is at the forefront of addressing and mitigating the impacts of poverty by ensuring that those who need it most are receiving the financial assistance to which they are entitled.

The Executive recognises the challenges for those people who are most disadvantaged within our society and are taking the necessary steps to address this need to ensure that those people have the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from increased prosperity.

The Social Security Agency has, since 2005, had a specific target to encourage benefit uptake and has taken forward a wide range of programmes in support of this target.  This work has generated an additional £37.6m to date in benefit awards with £3.95m of this in the last 12 months alone.  The Agency is continuing to build upon its commitment to helping reduce the impacts of poverty by encouraging people to check they are receiving their full benefit entitlement.

This year the Agency has significantly increased its investment in benefit uptake work, including, introducing two new initiatives, one of which is the Innovation Fund; and the second a province wide advertising campaign which will be announced shortly.  The Agency has a proven track record of working successfully with Third Sector partners, including organisations who focus on specific customer groups as well as voluntary and community sector organisations who work at grass roots level.  All of this is focused on connecting to those in our communities who may be hardest to reach and who may be entitled to financial support.

This year the Social Security Agency is launching, on a pilot basis, an Innovation Fund of £250,000 to encourage partners in the voluntary and community sector to take a lead in testing new and fresh approaches to reaching people with potential benefit entitlement.  The response to a competitive tendering competition was very encouraging with 27 proposals being submitted by 19 local organisations.

I am also particularly pleased that Atlantic Philanthropies has decided to make an additional investment of £125,000 to support the objectives of the Innovation Fund.  Atlantic Philanthropies is a Foundation which shares many of the objectives of my Department in building sustainable communities, addressing disadvantage and mitigating poverty.  I would like to publicly thank Atlantic Philanthropies for their commitment and investment.  I would also like to thank Ken Logue personally for his work on developing the Innovation Fund to date and for his promised commitment to working in partnership with us in monitoring and evaluating the outcomes.  This further investment by Atlantic Philanthropies means that we now have £375,000 to allocate, rather than the £250,000 originally envisaged.  As a consequence we can now fund 7 separate projects to run for the next 12 months.

The successful projects seek to target a wide range of people who may not be claiming their full entitlement, such as those in part time work on lower levels of income, those with health issues, including cancer, young people with special needs, older people, those living with disability and carers.  This is encouraging and I also like the fact that proposed new and innovatve technologies are being tested.

I congratulate the successful organisations and look forward to the outcomes of your efforts.  I would also like to commend staff for their past and continued efforts in serving the people of Northern Ireland so well.

The IRA in the 2nd World War

The Irish News runs a daily column entitled 'On This Day' in which historian Eamon Phoenix looks at events that happened 'on this day' some years ago and today he looked back to 1 November 1942.

Britain and her allies were at war with Germany but back in Ulster  the IRA saw this as their opportunity and during the course of the war they staged many terrorist attacks.  Today the newspaper reported that 69 years ago 'ten people - eight civilians and two policemen - were injured by a violent bomb explosion in Herbert Street, off the Crumlin Road' in North Belfast.

Five of the injured were children ranging from seven to fifteen years and six people were detailed in hospital.  A police patrol in Herbert Street had challenged two men, both of whom ran away, dropping a Mills grenade and a loaded revolver.  The grenade exploded injuring eight civilians, one of whom was a seven-year-old boy named Patrick Scullion, from Butler Street.  Most, if not all, of the civilians were Roman Catholics from Ardoyne.  The two policemen were also injured and all the injuries were caused by bomb splinters.

As we approach Remembrance Sunday and remember those who served and those who died in two World Wars and other conflicts, it is helpful to recall incidents such as that in Herbert Street.  Such incidents help to explain why the Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast will once again refuse to take part in the offical remembrance ceremonies.

At a time when many Ulstermen and Irishmen, Protestant and Roman Catholic, were fighting on the battlefields of Europe and beyond, fighting to thwart Hitler's evil plans, the IRA was mounting a squalid little terrorist campaign.  I have posted about the links between the IRA and the Nazis on previous occasions but today's newspaper was a timely reminder of those links.