Challenging weather conditions forced rally drivers to go all out in their attempt to win the John Mullolland Motors Ulster Rally in Derry (Londonderry) at the weekend, Lucy Begbie reports.
Welshman Elfyn Evans, and his co-driver Craig Parry, powered through the 143 mile course to seize the Ulster Rally win, taking the British Rally Championship title at the same time.
It was a historic day for the 27-year-old Ford Fiesta R5 rally driver from Dolgellau and his family, as it marks the twentieth anniversary of his father Gwyndaf’s win of the Ulster Rally back in 1996.
“The event was really tough, in fact it was probably the toughest of the season with the weather changing all the time – stage conditions changing constantly,” Evans said.
“After making a few wrong tyre choices yesterday (Friday), we played it safe and erred on the side of caution on the second day to make sure we held our advantage and took the win.
“It feels pretty good to win the British Rally Championship title… To combine it with a win is very special, and it’s nice to be going home with the championship.”
Ulsterman Jonathan Greer driving his Pirelli-backed Citroen DS3 R5 took second place on the podium. He maintained a good pace throughout the stages but conceded it was difficult to make the right tyre choice given the rain, slippery tarmac, and the mud and gravel on the road.
“It’s great to be back on the BRC podium, and its’s great to have done it against the calibre of drivers that were here. It makes it that bit special.”
Scottish driver David Bogie, said he was happy to get back to the finish in third place following a wheel bearing collapse on the last stage, with just a mile to go.
“This has to be one of the toughest rallies I have ever done – from the recce, through to two long days of rallying,” he admitted.
The Ulster Rally is the penultimate round of the Clonakilty Black Pudding Irish Tarmac Championship, and is also part of the British Rally Championship. Gary Milligan, the clerk of the course said he was ‘delighted’ with the quality of the entrants which also included local drivers Alistair Fisher, Desi Henry, Martin Mc Cormack and Jonny Greer. The event was further boosted by the late entry of 13 times TT winner Michael Dunlop in a Ford Escort.
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Matt Damon returns to our screens again as the enigmatic anti-hero of the cult Bourne series: Lucy Begbie’s film of the week
A detached rough shaven haunted Bourne (Matt Damon), mechanically and deftly defeats his opponent, in what appears to be an illegal boxing match. Bets that have been placed are recovered, and Bourne rapidly returns to the back of the transit van that deposited him there at the scene, and departs in a flurry of dust.
For those of us Bourne fans who have followed the film series obsessively – this is the fifth instalment – the opening is a neat visual summation of what has gone before, and of the series’ enduring themes – the lone outsider pitting himself against evil, real or constructed, on a quest to discover his true identity.
We need no prompting that this is Jason Bourne former CIA agent who can take out his adversaries at a blow. But it is also a reminder of the double life of the assassin. Nowhere is this more explicit than in Matt Damon’s harried screen presence as David Webb, alias Jason Bourne – a man forced to go off grid since previously uncovering the black operations of the CIA Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar.
Struggling with amnesia, and a mistrust of his former employers, he is lying low on the Greek/Albanian border making a living as a bare-knuckle boxer, until he is contacted by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) former CIA operative. She has hacked into CIA files and discovered information about Bourne’s recruitment and his father, and she thinks Bourne should know.
The pair arrange to rendez-vous at Syntagma Square in Athens, but are tracked down by Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), Head of CIA Cyberops, using high levels of surveillance, and at the behest of ruthless CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) – and so the high-octane narrative progresses.
Once again the Bourne formula is successfully employed by screenwriter and director Paul Greengrass, and film editor Christopher Rouse. Car and motor bike chases amidst exciting capital cityscapes and crowd scenes, with gripping soundtrack from John Powell, has the film goer reeling back from the big screen.
Of course we’ve seen it all before, but it still has impact. And what’s more Bourne is finally getting closer to the truth.
Yes, in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden and Wikipedia leaks affair, this is a timely film – working its dark magic of paranoia about intelligence agencies and their surveillance of citizens, all around about its audience.
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The Welfare Reform Bill was passed in the UK in 2012, but only came into being in Northern Ireland at the end of 2015: Lucy Begbie investigates its impact on Northern Ireland.
In 2012 the UK parliament passed its controversial Welfare Reform Act to oversee a radical overhaul of the benefit system in order to encourage more people to work or ‘make work pay’, and to cut government costs.
As a result of the recession, and wages being frozen, work was becoming an increasingly less attractive proposition for those who would actually be better off, or no worse off, by living on benefits.
It was this group, and the more historic groups of the unemployed, the government was keen to target. In this it had the full support of those members of the public who egged on by certain sectors of the press viewed claimants as ‘lazy’, ‘scroungers’, ‘living off the tax payer.’
The demographic of the claimant is of course less straightforward than that over-simplification. It includes the historic claimant who comes from a family where several generations have never known what it is to work – usually due to poor levels of literacy and numeracy and little expectation of a working life. To break out of such a vicious circle requires high levels of support and re-education.
It may be that the claimant grew up in an environment where domestic abuse was rife. Where violence, alcoholism and addictions have impacted the family greatly, not least affecting the claimant’s mental health and levels of confidence and self-esteem, severely affecting their ability to work, or to go about finding work.
Others receiving benefits include the disabled, the sick, the lone parent, the elderly, or families where only one parent is working because the other parent is looking after young children. These groups will have very real restrictions placed on them by their set of circumstances, and will be highly dependent on the benefits they receive.
In Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) the roll out of the Universal Credit system – one benefit replacing all – began in 2012. As a result, there have been many reports in the press, and via community and charitable organisations, of increased hardship for the unemployed or low income families. Increased use of food banks is one example repeatedly cited.
In Northern Ireland the welfare reform act was only passed at the end of 2015. The lead up to this was littered with controversy and resistance to proposals agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. Across the parties there was the understanding that savings had to be made but a concern by Sinn Fein and the SDLP that certain communities and vulnerable groups might be hit harder than others.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone says:
“The big concern, the key question is, what motivated welfare reform? Extortionate levels of money were handed out to the banks, and yet some of the people now paying out are the most vulnerable.
“It’s easy to kick a person when they are down – they can’t fight back. It does gall me.
“Everyone wants to make sure people can work, if work is available, and people are fit to work.
“I don’t buy it that benefits are there for scroungers, the majority of people we deal with are good people fallen on bad times.
With the eventual threat of the collapse of the assembly, and a return to direct rule, talks were renewed. The Fresh Start Agreement was drawn up in November 2015, with a commitment to welfare and tax credit reform, along with public sector reform, and the ending of paramilitarism.
DUP MLA Lord Morrow says:
“DUP MPs voted against the most punitive aspects of welfare reform at Westminster, but once welfare reform was passed at Parliament it was inevitable that it would have to be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“The refusal by some parties to accept reality meant that penalties were imposed from Westminster which took vital funds away from public services in Northern Ireland. The DUP DSD Minister did negotiate a package which negated many of the worst effects and ensured that Northern Ireland received a more generous welfare deal than any other region of the UK.
“We recognise that welfare reform will have an impact in Northern Ireland, but the impact on vulnerable people would have been much greater if the Executive had continued to pay the penalties imposed by Westminster for failing to introduce changes.”
Northern Ireland is unique from other parts of the UK and this will impact on the introduction of welfare reform. This was recognised in the drawing up of the Fresh Start Agreement and explains why there are differences in parts of Northern Ireland’s welfare reform, and the timeline to deliver it, and the ‘top ups’ available over the first four years.
Professor Eileen Evason, Lead, Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group says:
“People in Northern Ireland don’t understand how much hardship welfare reform has caused in Great Britain. Northern Ireland now has a unique package of measures in place to prevent much of the difficulty experienced in Great Britain.
“Clearly we cannot ensure nobody is worse off, but we have got a breathing space, and we are putting in a number of measures which will help greatly.
“For example families with children will not be subject to the benefit cap. The bedroom tax will not apply to Northern Ireland and we will have measures in place to ensure sanctions don’t cause hardship, and to help people transfer from DLA to PIP.”
There is an understanding that thirty years of troubles has had a serious impact on the population’s mental health that is related to the take up of benefits – especially in regard to Disability Living Allowance – thus placing greater strain on the welfare system.
Samantha Boswell who is Advice 4 Health coordinator at Citizen Advice Causeway, works in tandem with health professionals who refer clients. The people she advises include those with learning difficulties, physical disabilities, mental health problems, the elderly, and families with young children.
“The processes don’t work well for people with mental health problems. Since welfare reform was mentioned our clients have been distressed. The important thing is that the client has third party support.”
There has been particularly criticism in Great Britain of the targeting of the disabled, who are now subjected to regular interviews and examinations to see if they are fit for work. The press carried a number of stories about how pressures on those whose disability benefit had been reduced, had led to suicide in some cases.
Personal Independence Payment known as PIP now replaces Disability Living Allowance and first took effect in Northern Ireland in June this year. Samantha Boswell says that PIP has taken on some of the feedback given by professionals over the years.
She thinks the processing of the benefit has some positive elements which means claims could be processed faster, but she would like to see more direct consultation with medical professionals at the outset of applications. This would take the pressure off clients she says.
“Any change is scary for people. Letters have gone out in advance of the changes and this has alarmed people, especially those with mental health problems. People panic. We’ve had lots of people ringing up. A very high percentage of clients coming through the door will have a query connected to welfare reform.”
Professor Eileen Evason believes the whole welfare package in Great Britain was unnecessary. She says since 2010 the coalition government used the economic crisis as a cover to cut the benefit system, and that Northern Ireland then had to try and protect its own people.
Part of Northern Ireland’s special package is the eight million pounds invested in the advice sector to help mitigate the effects of the welfare reforms. There will also be a discussion in 2018 to decide which bits of the programme the Executive wants to keep. Only time will tell the impact on the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland’s communities.
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DUNGANNON Swifts’ Chairman has rejected claims that a number of supporters have been banned from the ground following Saturday’s game with Cliftonville at Stangmore Park.
It has been confirmed that one supporter has been banned from the club after running on to the pitch in the closing stages of Saturday’s game.
But claims posted on social media, that a number of people have been barred have been rejected by Chairman Keith Boyd.
“Only one supporter has been barred for running on to the pitch,” Keith told the Courier.
“Everyone is welcome apart from the one person who has been barred.”
A large contingent of almost 40 young people have been admitted to games free of charge this season by the club, and have been praised for adding to volume levels at Stangmore Park.
However, the Chairman has stated that issues around the singing of songs and conduct have made life difficult for him, despite all the efforts he has gone to to include the young supporters in the club.
He also confirmed that, while those responsible for the social media post have called themselves the Dungannon Swifts Supporters’ Club, the official Dungannon Swifts Supporters’ Club is an entirely separate entity, headed up by Darren Boyd.
He said: “We’ve done everything we can for them.
“We bought them a drum, we bought them a banner, we got them in free to all the matches ane bent over backwards.
“We had them down at the club last week and I bought them pizzas out of my own money.
“On Saturday I didn’t even get seeing the game.
“People on the outside looking in might say you’re hard on them, but they don’t know the facts.
“There’s older supporters who’ve stopped going because of some of the language being used.
“Some of them have been putting up Union Jacks and singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and what’s that got to do with Dungannon Swifts.”
In a statement on a facebook page under the name, Dungannon swifts supporters club (sic), it was said: “After discussions we’ve come to a final conclusion that we won’t be back at games any more.
“We didn’t hope it would have to end this way because at the end of the day we only went to support the 11 lads on the pitch. But still week upon week we were treated as criminals.
“We wish Rod and the players every success for the coming season and for the future.
The statement also said that “…in reality now the board have got what they wanted…”
Saturday’s clash with Cliftonville was a thrilling affair and Dungannon got a late equaliser through Andrew Mitchell, prompting some fans to run on to the pitch to embrace the goalscorer.
And, contrary to rumours, no supporters were banned for coming on to the ground, the supporter being banned for entering the pitch at a different juncture, said the Chairman.
He also said the vast majority of the young fans will be welcome back at all future games.
Dungannon Swifts Football Club Webpage available here.
Lamp posts covered by posters, knocks on the door after dinner every night and a bare minimum of four leaflets coming through the letterbox every morning. Just some of the tell-tale signs that we in Northern Ireland are firmly in election mode.
Hard as it is to believe, we are indeed at the end of another five-year cycle. Over the last five years the ‘house on the hill’ has seen more break-ups, make-ups and dramatic moments than a series of The Only Way is Essex. And now, in the next few days the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls and the cycle will start all over again.
This time around, the election is threatening to throw up some intriguing results. Even areas like West Belfast, which has elected the same amount of seats to the same parties on the last three occasions, is looking likely to buck the trend. However, of all eighteen constituencies, there is unlikely to be a more absorbing conclusion than in the nip-and-tuck constituency of South Belfast.
In the 2011 elections, South Belfast voted for representation from each of the five ‘main parties’, with the SDLP taking two seats. Fast forward 5 years and not one of the elected MLA’s from 2011 are standing in the race again. This means that whatever happens, 6 candidates who have never previously been elected into position will take up a post at Stormont.
So, what can we expect?
Let’s start with the SDLP, the only party to currently hold more than one assembly seat in the constituency. The party as a whole has undergone a great deal of change since 2011, both in leadership and personnel. This is very apparent in South Belfast, candidates Claire Hanna and Fearghal McKinney are both current South Belfast MLA’s having taken over from the South Belfast stalwart Alistair McDonnell and Conall McDevitt in 2015 and 2013 respectively. The election will therefore act as something of a litmus test in terms of seeing how the constituency has taken to their co-opted MLA’s.
Whilst the party remain confident of returning two MLAs to Stormont from the constituency, it is difficult to ignore the bruising times that the SDLP has endured of late. A common argument against the party during the election campaign has been that the party themselves are unclear as to whether they wish to be part of a government or opposition at Stormont. Despite these protestations, we can be assured that at least one candidate will be elected with relative ease, and it is more likely to be the impressive Hanna, who in recent TV and radio appearances has dealt with issues such as abortion and gay marriage rights in some style.
That’s not to say the party’s deputy leader McKinney is out of luck. He is, however, likely to be involved in a bit of a scrap for the fifth and sixth seats in the constituency.
Another poster seen in South Belfast with two faces is that of the Alliance Party. Unlike the SDLP, this is the first time that Alliance have run with two candidates in the area. As calculated risk taken, one would presume, on the back of the 2011 election where the outgoing Anna Lo topped the poll with 19% of first preference votes to be elected on the first count. The Alliance Party now clearly sense an opportunity to gain another seat at the Stormont table in South Belfast and their two candidates, Paula Bradshaw and Duncan Morrow, both have genuine aspirations of election.
Much like the SDLP, we can expect to see at least one Alliance candidate elected with comfort. Despite her lower split of the area, it is more likely to be Bradshaw whose ground work in the community during previous campaigns (which saw here finish third in the 2015 parliamentary elections) should see her to the finish line.
Alliance received a great deal of criticism, particularly from unionist quarters, during the now infamous flag protests which began in 2012, remember them? But South Belfast candidate Morrow believes that the party can look forward and offer genuine change for the people of Northern Ireland,
“Part of my job as an MLA, should I get in, would be to ask myself what bring people here [to Northern Ireland]? What keeps people here?”
Morrow also believes that the cross-community stance which often sees the party labelled as ‘fence sitters’ is one of their strengths, and this stance is recognised for what it truly is, in South Belfast,
“We have championed the cause of the right of people to live safely right across this community”.
The potential for a second Alliance seat is dependant not only on how the second SDLP candidate fairs, but also on how well received the DUPs two candidate tactic is. Christopher Stalford and Junior Minister Emma Little-Pengelly both have reason to believe that electoral success could be coming their way, but their biggest stumbling block will almost certainly be the potential split in the South Belfast Unionist vote.
With candidates from the UUP, UKIP, PUP and former DUP member Ruth Patterson who is now standing as an independent, the unionist ticket is well populated. It all really depends then, on whether or not unionist voters are willing to transfer their votes in the STV electoral system to other unionist parties. Either that, or we will see a stalemate situation where each party takes a split of the unionist vote thus allowing the likes of SDLP, Alliance and Claire Bailey of the Green Party to share a greater number of 2nd/3rd preference votes.
Sinn Fein have taken the decision to only stand one candidate in South Belfast. Not taking the risk of two candidates means that their candidates Máirtín Ó Muilleoir will be elected without much fuss. Votes from large republican areas such as the Lower Ormeau road will see the Sinn Fein candidate easily past the post.
So it’s all to play for in South Belfast. A race so tight that it will most likely take two counting days until the 6 MLAs have been decided. For now though, the tense waiting game for every candidate begins.
South Belfast Green Party Candidate Clare Bailey has said that if elected in the upcoming Assembly Election, she will put forward legislation which will see men face prosecution if their sex partners seek illegal abortions.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply and as many as 1000 women travel to other parts of the UK to seek terminations. However, many cannot afford this and are forced into other ways of ending un-wanted pregnancies.
Clare voiced her intentions after a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended sentence at Belfast Crown Court in April this year, for buying abortion pills online and using them to induce a miscarriage.
To find out more about this case please click below:
I caught up with Clare to find out what her reasoning is behind bringing men into this issue and what the proposed legislation will entail.
“I am absolutely outraged that in this day and age we are still convicting women and passing a sentence that she will have for the rest of her life”.
“My challenge to the legislature is that we need to sort this issue out because it’s not going away. Putting this legislation forward is an effort to change people’s thinking. I have yet to meet a woman who got herself pregnant so why are we only convicting one person in a criminal justice system? Why are men not equally responsible for their lack of reproductive choices? Here we have a young woman convicted with no mention of the male involved.”
However, many have said that this proposed legislation is nonsense as the decision to seek is an abortion is solely down to the woman. Furthermore, many have argued that women have fought for so long to gain control over their reproductive rights, so I asked Clare if am woman has control over her own body should she therefore not have full responsibility for what she does with it?
“I absolutely do, but if we as a society are going to convict her for what we believe to be a crime in our law – she didn’t get pregnant on her own so why is there not two people being held responsible for that crime?”
“My challenge for the next 108 MLA’s is for them to take this issue very seriously because I believe that the current law we are convicting women under (Section 58 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861) is gender discrimination.”
Abortion in Northern Ireland is still a very contentious issue. There have been many cases in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (where it is also illegal) that have raised the debate on both the pro-choice and pro-life sides. I asked Clare why she thinks abortion continues to be such a sensitive and polarising topic.
“I think it’s largely because we have the conversations wrong and it’s a cultural understanding of what’s going on. I think we as a society still believe that women are irresponsible and get themselves pregnant because they’re just having casual sex and it’s an easy choice to go for an abortion when the reality is something very different.”
“We need to break the silence on this issue. What we don’t know is how many women are buying abortion pills online, this is the modern day equivalent of back-street abortions and our law is not stopping women needing this health care. The challenge with this legislation is to change conversations, to focus minds, and really putting a challenge out to the electorate.”
The Green Party is the only party in the assembly which is for the 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland.
“Many MLA’s claim to be pro-choice and want this issue to be resolved but the 1967 Act is not the way forward because it’s a flawed law and it over 50 years old. Well we are operating under acts which are 150 years, that were in place before women had the vote, before women could run for office so I believe that the extension of the 1967 to Northern Ireland is the quickest way to face up to the problem that we’ve got.”
The Assembly have debated on certain aspects of abortion such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, however actual legislation regarding these issues has yet to be passed through.
“I don’t believe these debates are enough when it comes to this issue. Many women who seek abortions need it because of their own health reasons, through poverty, they may already mothers and know what it means to have a child, or for many other circumstances which would make raising a child very difficult.”
“It’s good that these debates are happening because we really need to move on. Women are suffering and are taking high risk strategies to sort themselves out because our MLA’s fail them every single time.”
If elected in the upcoming Assembly Elections, Clare plans to change the conversations surrounding this issue and promises that as an MLA she will do everything she can to ensure that women are no longer criminalised.
To see Clare’s letter to the editor, which brought her opinion on this issue to light please click below:
Furthermore, to find out more about the Green Party and it’s policies please click below:
After many years of conflict in Northern Ireland, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ushered in a new era of peace to the province, and allowed for the devolution of government to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Having voted via referendum, the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland gave the agreement their approval. However, the system of government provided by the assembly is not without its faults or its criticisms. One such criticism is that the Northern Ireland assembly is over-governed. It is argued that there are simply too many MLAs for such a small population.
There are currently 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Stormont who represent a population of approximately 1.811 million people. This equates to there being approximately 1 MLA per 16,788 persons who live here. Comparatively there is around 1 Member of Parliament in Westminster for every 92,000 people in the whole of the UK. In Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood, they have 129 elected MSPs, meaning that Scotland has just 21 more elected representatives than Northern Ireland for a population that is more than twice the size of Northern Ireland’s.
The debate around the reduction of MLAs isn’t exactly a new one. Political commentators, the general public, and politicians themselves have been having a seemingly endless discussion about the issue for a number of years. Having looked at the number representatives in Stormont in relation to the number of representatives in other UK parliaments, it would be difficult for any party to publicly denounce the reduction of MLAs. In recent years there has been increased pressure on the Northern Ireland Assembly to provide value for money. The parties at Stormont tend to be in agreement that there are too many elected representatives in the assembly, and yet despite many years of discussion, there has been little to no definite action taken to address the issue, until quite recently. Surprisingly it was the crisis talks that took place at Stormont in November, and the resulting “Fresh Start Agreement” that set the framework for the reduction of MLAs and assembly departments.
A section of the Stormont House Agreement, or “Fresh Start Agreement”, contains a proposal introduce a bill to reduce the number of government departments from 12 to 9, and to reduce the number of MLAs to 5 per constituency by 2021. The proposal would reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90. However, members of The Alliance Party have argued that changes should have been implemented before the May 2016 election, and brought forward an assembly motion to that effect last November. Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson who signed the proposal said, “Estimates are it would save the taxpayer around £2.2 million each year, or £11 million per Assembly term, in wages, expenses and office costs.”
The estimated savings that were suggested by Stewart Dickson are certainly attractive, especially in a time of public sector cuts and austerity. Nevertheless, other parties in the assembly voted against the motion to change the timing of the implementation. Following the vote, Alliance MLA for East Belfast Chris Lyttle slammed those who opposed the motion saying, “It is disappointing other parties decided to act in self-preservation and not follow Alliance’s lead to carry out much-needed reform, while still ensuring representation for smaller parties.” However, ensuring the representation of certain groups was one of the main reasons cited by some parties for not implementing the changes before the most recent elections.
During the debate Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan warned members of the dangers of comparing the Northern Ireland Assembly to its UK counterparts saying, “None of those institutions faces the same difficulties as we do here. None of them was established as a response to 30 years of conflict and the serious fault lines and divisions in society that we have here in the North”. He added, “In the Assembly, the question is whether a reduction in the number of MLAs would have a negative impact on representation or equality. There is, for example, a danger that some constituencies will be left without a nationalist representative in some cases or a unionist representative in others.”
Other MLAs who took part in the debate stressed the need for representation of smaller parties, and women in the Assembly. Danny Kennedy of the UUP said, “We also need to see what protections will be in place for some of the smaller parties.”
Women who are already represented in politics could suffer as a result of the reduction of MLAs. Caitríona Ruane said “I welcome the agreement. Let us put it in place now, but let us also make sure that each one of us is proactive in ensuring that we have more women on the ticket.”
If the changes were implemented at this current time, the reduction of MLAs would have affected certain groups within the assembly disproportionately. Based on current election results nationalists within the assembly would be set to lose a staggering 22.5% of their representatives, compared to a unionist loss of 12.5%. Those who designate as “others” would lose 16.66% of their representatives. Hypothetically speaking the Green Party would be the only party who designate as “other” who would not lose a seat. Their party press officer Sara McCracken said, “The Green Party will be working to consolidate its position and increase representation… Green Party supports the changes but have been working towards this coming in after the current mandate.” There would be a 13.33% loss of women in an assembly where women make up just 27.77% of its members.
The Assembly passed the Reduction of Numbers Bill in February of this year which will implement the changes to the number of MLAs as outlined in the “Fresh Start Agreement”. Parties need to work to consolidate their own positions. They also need to consolidate the diversity of representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Reduction of MLAs will certainly save money, but it could be at a heavy price.
With the elections only days away, people may be wondering how the Northern Ireland assembly will change after last year’s announcement to reduce MLA’s and Stormont departments, and how it will affect the party they’re voting for.
However, for this year’s elections, it won’t affect any individual party. Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, announced in March 2015 that Stormont will be reducing the number of government departments from 12 to nine.
The change, known as the Departments Bill, was introduced on 30th November 2015, proposing the changes to the Northern Ireland assembly. The parties agreed to name the departments as follows;
Department for Communities
Department for the Economy
Department of Education
Department of Health
Department for Infrastructure
Department of Justice
Department of Finance
Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Finally, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First minister would now be known as The Executive Office.
These departmental reductions are said to be brought in to result in more “efficient administration” resulting in better value for money, as well as some “consequential cost savings” according to the NI assembly.
Mr Robinson said no functions would be rid of and “no policies terminated.”
He went on to say, “Staff will follow functions, and there may be a certain amount of early disruption,” he added.
“But once the changes have been effected, there will undoubtedly be greater efficiency.”
He said the executive had also agreed the drafting of a Departments Bill and a Transfer of Functions Order to provide a legislative basis for the changes.
“We aim to introduce the Departments Bill to the assembly after the Easter Recess,” he added.
“A more detailed Transfer of Functions Order will be available for assembly scrutiny later this year.
“There will be extensive opportunity for the assembly to consider and debate these changes.”
It was also announced that the assembly will reduce the number of MLAs by 2021. The deadline was set by the Stormont House Agreement which states the number of MLAs will be reduced from 108 to 90, meaning five MLAs will be elected for each constituency rather than the six that currently are.
These changes will be implemented in time for the 2021 elections, increasing the pressure on the parties that currently represent each constituency.
The Green Party’s Stephen Agnew, who is one of the MLAs elected for North Down, said, “It will make the election that bit more competitive of course. It’s a slight concern for every party in the constituencies throughout Northern Ireland, not just us.
“I have full confidence we will get voted back in, though, in the 2021 elections. Our voters will get behind us and we’re predicting we will get our highest number of votes in this election. So we remain positive.”
He added, “It is quite a long way away, but of course we need to start preparing for the change as the election will be that bit more competitive (in 2021).”
So any confusion caused by our ever-complicated government, don’t fret. This was your summary of what is going on in Stormont just in time for the elections on May 6th.
Since the new councils where elected, Mid Ulster council have had many highs and lows. The new council has come under heavy criticism over the new traffic system in the town of Dungannon.
The new look Market Square in Dungannon
Several messages of complaint were posted on the Dungannon Life page on Facebook regarding changes to the layout of Market Square which resulted from the first phase of the Public Realm Scheme.
The comments were received after details on traffic management, which will be in place as the second stage of the work continues, were announced by the Council.
The Council took responsibility for the services of 3 former Councils – Cookstown District Council, Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council and Magherafelt District Council – as well as a range of new services, on 1 April 2015.
The Council stated: “Lagan Construction Group are working on Thomas Street and Scotch Street from this week in the second phase of the public realm scheme in the town centre. Thomas Street: One-way traffic will be introduced from Market Square via Thomas Street to the Feeney’s Lane junction, with traffic exiting the Square maintained.”
Details for traffic between Greers Road and Feeney’s Lane were also announced.
The latest traffic arrangements drew some criticism from those using the Dungannon Life web page, with one woman stating: “Dungannon has some great shops only destroyed by the new traffic system its a joke”, while another user added: “Second phase of the public mess scheme I hope the designer of the first phase is proud of his/her disaster.”
A spokeswoman for Mid Ulster Council responded to the criticism: “We have undertaken extensive consultation in the development and implementation of the public realm scheme in the town centre, and continue to engage with local people at every stage.
“While there have been some concerns expressed about traffic, we have to emphasise that the changes to traffic flows which began this week are temporary and are simply to allow this particular stage of the works to take place. There are no new traffic arrangements in Dungannon as part of this second phase of work.”
However, a leading Dungannon businessman has described the town’s public realm works as “not friendly for pedestrians”.
The comments by Stephen McCammon on Menary’s came as it was revealed that the £7.5million spent on public realm schemes in the Mid-Ulster area is the second lowest in Northern Ireland.
Only the Fermanagh and Omagh area has had less spent on their schemes at £3.7million.
The schemes, which often involve installing natural stone paving, new lighting, new benches, bins and trees, have frustrated shoppers and traders alike due to over-running and projects going over budget.
In Dungannon, some traders are unhappy with the impact the public realm schemes have had so far.
Mr McCammon said: “I’m very much in favour of public realm schemes but the key thing is planning and I think the planning in phase one in Dungannon has been very difficult.
“We’ve now got a town that is quite simply not friendly for pedestrians, it does not enable pedestrians to shop the town, particularly Market Square, easily.”
Adrian McCreesh, from Mid-Ulster District Council, said phase one of the works scheme had been “an interesting challenge”.
He said the council was “taking a professional assessment of the traffic, the parking and all the issues that our traders have highlighted as part of phase one”.
“If there’s anything we can do to further develop and further enhance the success of phase one, we will do it.
“We will not be found wanting.”
Meanwhile it has been suggested that public realm schemes are unlikely to have a direct positive economic impact for towns.
It was also revealed that Mid-Ulster Council has contributed the least council money at £191,500.
Phase two is now in action and many residents and shop owners hope to see a vast improvement.