Successful Day at the Omagh Rugby 7s

On Saturday 25th April, Omagh Academicals Rugby Football Club hosted their annual Seven’s Tournament.

27 teams from across Ulster competed in four leagues.  The Omagh Accies first team defeated their Omagh 2nd XV counterparts, to win the Campbell Cup.

Omagh Accies XV, Campbell Cup Winners

‘No Woman No Try’, a team of other Omagh players, won the third tier trophy on offer, the PJ Ryan Cup.

No Woman No Try, PJ Ryan Cup Winners

Dungannon took the Watterson Cup back to Stevenson Park, while the ladies of Cooke won the ladies competition, which was hosted for the first time in the tournament’s history.

Dungannon RFC, Watterson Cup Winners
Cooke RFC ladies, Ladies Cup Winners

Visiting teams such as Enniskillen, Clogher Valley, Dungannon and City of Derry joined Omagh Academy and a mix of competitive and social sides from the host club including ‘The Mexicans’, who stood out in their new colours but fielded in their 19th season. The team was captained by Keith Givens, who has played in the team since their first outing in 1996.

The day not only included rugby, but also a beach volleyball tournament, an inflatable bar, DJ and a hot tub which players enjoyed in the beautiful weather.

Beach Volleyball at the 7s Tournament

The evening, which had a lot to live up to, following the great day the many players and spectators had enjoyed, did not disappoint. The Logues played to a packed rugby club and the high spirited Accies celebrated the end of a great season, with the 1st XV winning Kukri Qualifying 2 league, gaining promotion to Qualifying 1 and also making it to the final of the McCall Wylie Junior Cup played at Ravenhill. The 2nd XV won the Crawford Cup and the club has been nominated for the Ulster Branch Club of the Year award.

The club are looking forward to their “off-peak” period with a pre-season tour of Munster planned and the return of the mixed-tag tournament which never disappoints.

Laura’s girls go for gold

 

u19 squad

Netball’s Northern Ireland under 17 squad took on the under 19 national side on Sunday in preparation for the upcoming European championships. Following an impressive warm up, the girls took the court in front of an audience of Netball Northern Ireland officials, family and players. Ahead of the European championships weekend in June both squads have been undergoing intense training and Sunday was a chance to show off their skills and play against tough competition.

The squad will play in front of a home crowd later this month in Lisburn Racquet’s club. However, the under 19s will also be heading to Loughborough the same weekend for the first under 19 championships in four years.

After speaking to head Coach Laura Montgomery, it looks as though they’re going for gold. When asked about her squad Laura had nothing but positive things to say: “I feel very lucky to have such a superb squad with great depth. It will be extremely tough coming off the first under 19 championships in four years but we are well prepared.”

The squad’s goal shooter Caroline Davis made an impressive comeback on Sunday after a major injury. After her performance it looks as though she’s well and truly back in the game. Co-captains Sarah Montgomery and Sophie McLean are also an attribute to the squad after being talent identified to compete in the under 21 world youth tournament in February.

They seem to have the experience required to lead the squad out strong and Laura said; “with them both having such great experience we just couldn’t have split them up.” Hence the decision to appoint the girls as co-captains. Laura also said: “Vice-captain Sinead Redmond is also very competent and the camaraderie together with the squad’s experience and high skill level makes for a great combination to put them in the running towards winning that highly sought-after gold medal.”

With England holding their stake as the toughest competition in the tournament it looks as though the girls are in for a challenging yet exciting weekend. Following such encouraging words from the head coach, let’s hope they can return to Northern Ireland with a gold medal and great memories. Good luck ladies.

North West 200 Launch

NW 200

24/3/2015: Stars of the 2015 Vauxhall International North West 200 pictured with Event Director Mervyn Whyte at the race launch in Titanic, Belfast. (L-R) Jeremy McWilliams, Ryan Farquhar, John McGuinness, Lee Johnston, Maria Costello, Dean Harrison, Michael Rutter, Peter Hickman, Alastair Seeley and William Dunlop. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON PACEMAKER, BELFAST.

Last night I attended the 2015 Vauxhall International North West 200 press launch at the Titanic Quarter, Belfast. With just 47 days to the next NW200 fans and riders alike prepare themselves for the 86th North West 200 road race and Ireland’s largest outdoor sporting event.

The press launch wasn’t just your usual PR event. It was a chance for the riders to engage with the fans, with the aim of making the NW200 as enjoyable as possible for everyone.

It was my first time ever attending such an event and my first feeling of the night was surprise.  I couldn’t believe how relaxed it was, and how humble the riders were.  All the riders seen in the picture above hold amazing racing records yet their humility and clear passion for their fans, as well as the sport, was just astonishing to see. I kept wondering would certain golfing stars of the world be as pleasant and willing among a large group of almost 1,000 fans demanding pictures, autographs and on some occasions much more.

Have a look at this interview with NW200 Director Mervyn Whyte on the reasons why you should come to the NW200, 2015.

The North West 200 name derives from the location of the event on the North West of Ireland, an area of outstanding beauty, ‘200’ was included to keep links to the original race which was run over a distance of 200 miles.

There is no doubt that the NW200 will be a wonderful experience for anyone and in an area of such beauty just adds to the glamour of the event.

For those looking more information on the event visit the NW200’s official website here.  For information on accommodation and other things to do while attending the NW200  visit this site.

 

Super Council Planning Corruption

A map of Northern Ireland's new council areas
A map of Northern Ireland’s new council areas

In the run-up to the launch of Northern Ireland’s local government reforms adverts assured the general public that the new councils with additional powers would create a “stronger”, “more cost effective” and “citizen focussed” government. One month on from the super-councils take-over what are the major issues facing the new councils?

Considering the fact that the biggest change to the councils has been the devolution of planning responsibilities it is hardly surprising that an issue connected to planning has proven to be the first stumbling block.  The primary concern appears to be over the possibility of corruption and incompetence in the new planning processes. But what planning powers exactly have been transferred and why?

As far back as 2002 the Northern Ireland Executive commissioned a review into public administration across Northern Ireland. Many suggestions were made as a result of this inquiry, importantly the recommendation that the number of councils (26 at this time) be reduced. By 2008 the Executive was finally able to reveal plans, after several years of delays, to condense the 26 councils to 11 and devolve some centrally held powers to the local government. A package of £47.8 million was set aside to fund the changes. The chief aim being to create cheaper, more efficient local government.

The transfer of planning responsibility from the Department of the Environment to the super- councils was a major part of the 2008 reform package. It was felt that giving councils the work of planning would mean that decisions would be more transparent, more likely to reflect the local communities, and support local needs. This transfer also afforded the government the opportunity to overhaul planning procedure: in theory it has now become a much quicker, simpler and more streamlined process.

There are three planning application categories: local, major and regional. Councils have sole responsibility for the decision-making on all local and major applications, while all regional applications are to be decided on by the DoE. The DoE will also retain legislative, policy and oversight responsibilities.

Each council must establish a planning committee that will create a document known as a “Scheme of Delegation” and this will dictate what is dealt with by the committee (most probably controversial applications or plans for large developments) and what is dealt with by planning officers.  There are also local planning offices opening in each council area, meaning more communication and clarity for those applying. Mark Durkan has said of the reforms: “these improvements will bring planning closer to the public and make it easier for the public to access and participate in the planning process”.

Mr Durkan’s comments seems reasonable:  these reforms to planning are certainly an improvement on the old system which left un-elected civil servants making the majority of planning decisions centrally, but there are major areas of concern which have been flagged-up in the last few weeks.

The Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley has spoken out about his anxieties over the possibility of corruption infiltrating the planning process. His concerns are related to the fact that Northern Ireland’s political parties do not currently have to declare donations made to their party. Mr Frawley therefore believes it may be possible for property developers to bribe councillors into approving applications.

Northern Ireland’s Chief Planning Officer Fiona McCandless countered Mr Frawley’s misgivings by claiming that the new code of conduct that was drawn-up for councillors who sit on the new super-councils will ensure impartiality. The code stresses the importance of acting in the public interest at all times and specifies that no councillor should act in order to gain financial or material benefit. A section that specifically refers to planning has also been included. Ms McCandless has said of the transfer of planning powers to councils: “We have done a huge amount of work in terms of making sure the necessary procedures are in place to ensure that there is accountability in order to secure confidence in the system”.

However this new code of conduct and the procedures that have been introduced to councils are not universally popular. Belfast City Councillor Claire Hanna, for example, was unconvinced when I interviewed her:” I’m not yet persuaded that the changes will be effectively worked between a restrictive code of conduct (particularly as regards advocacy on planning) and potential log-jam from the ‘call in’ (qualified majority voting) mechanisms, which are likely to be abused in a similar manner to the petition of concern at Stormont.”

Belfast City hall

Others are aware that a balance between bureaucracy and transparency must be reached: Councillor John Hussey was clear on this matter when I spoke with him: “people worry that poor or dubious decisions will be made if the members of the Planning Committees don’t properly understand their role and function.  To prevent this, a great deal of training has been given to Councillors who will serve on the Planning Committee which should ensure they make proper and fair decisions.”

On the question of possible venality in the planning process Cllr Hussey said: “The potential for corruption in the administration of government functions is always a concern.  However there is less possibility of corruption in a planning system which is entirely open to the public as this new system is, than in the previous system where planning decisions were taken by civil servants acting alone and out of public view.”

The Northern Ireland Local Government Association is keen to emphasise the great gains that will come with planning reforms: Chief Executive Declan McCallan has said that there will be no “poverty of ambition” from politicians and rate payers alike. The potential for regeneration is being held-up as the legacy of new council powers and politicians have only to point to the transformation of Manchester, where the city council were given development responsibility, to show what can be achieved.

Despite controversy and apprehension for better or worse these powers have been devolved and only time will tell whether this move will lead to regeneration and growth, or exploitation and ineptitude.

Unionist’s left unhappy with council’s decision to put Irish first on its signage.

The first of April saw the rise of the new council structure in Northern Ireland as local councils were given more power in their community. However many unionists are unhappy with the new changes which include putting Irish first of council signage as well as a ban on poppy selling within some local councils.

The councils in Northern Ireland have a big say in running our local community. They carry out necessary tasks that many of us take for granted such as environmental health, rubbish collection and marriages. However the council system has changed dramatically over the last few months.

On the first of April of this year the government decided to decrease the number of councils in Northern Ireland, this was done to make our councils run more efficiently and to save money in the long run. Before the change was implemented there were twenty six councils in Northern Ireland, now there are only eleven. Although the number of councils has decreased the role of these councils has dramatically increased as the ‘super councils’ now have more responsibilities which include planning and parking.

The Eleven New Super Councils within Northern Ireland

 

Although these changes are for the better many are not happy with the changes their councils have made to the area. In some of the more nationalist areas of the country such as the Newry, Mourne and Down have decided to make Irish their primary language on their signage, letterheads and vehicles. The Mid Ulster Council have also stopped the selling of poppies within their council buildings. These decisions have resulted in what some refer to as a ‘cold house’ for unionist members of the community.

Within the Newry, Mourne and Down Council Sinn Fein Cllr Barra O’Muiri proposed that the Irish Language should come before the English Language and when placed side by side it should be on the left. This would occur on any council signage and letterheads. This vote was passed with fourteen votes to five. As members of the council and its community are mainly nationalist this vote was not surprising for locals.

Barra O’Muiri commented on his proposal. He said that this was, ‘a lasting and meaningful contribution towards building a strong and united community. It will not in any way threaten or displace the English Language but sit alongside it as a living and vibrant language.”

Many unionist members of the community are annoyed and disheartened by this vote. DUP Nelson McCausland is angry at the proposal and its result. He said, “This is another attempt by nationalists and republicans to assert their dominance in that area, whilst some would like to present this as a petty argument over a letterheads it is actually a deeper issue about a council and whether it values all its citizens equally or whether it will use the Promotion of the Irish language as a tool to exclude others. He continues to say that ‘The English is the language of proper communication on Northern Ireland and should remain first on the signage.

Newry, Mourne and Down Council’s new signage

Members of the DUP are not the only party to take this stance of the issue. Brendan Curran an independent Newry Cllr said, “They are using it as a political football as I know they are not too active in organising and supporting Irish language classes in the area. The introduction of the Irish language has to be done in a sensitive way, it shouldn’t be shoved down people’s throats.”

Mark Murphy (24) from Ballyward lives within the Newry, Mourne and Down Council. He does not agree with the change. He said, “I am annoyed at the new change as I do not think it reflects the district, within Newry City Centre people communicate using many languages. As Irish is the fourth most popular in the city I do believe that it should be first.”

He continues, “I do not mind it being on the signage but I think the English language should come first, as it is the most widely spoken and understood language throughout the world, therefore it can be understood by everyone who lives here and people who come to visit from other countries. I myself live in this country and cannot read or pronounce Irish, so how can we expect tourists to understand it.”

Judging by these comments many people are hurt and angry at the change, as many unionist members of the community cannot speak Irish nor do they want their language to be considered second best to others. Everyone recognises that Northern Ireland is trying to move on from its past. To some this decision means equality but to others it means that their heritage and language is being considered second best.

Mid Ulster signage

It comes as no surprise that Sinn Fein and the SDLP back these plans for the Irish Language and this could see the emergence of three other nationalist super councils. These include Mid Ulster, Derry and Strabane and Fermanagh and Omagh. As the Vote has been cast and passed in Newry, Mourne and Down these other councils are starting to follow suit as Mid Ulster has also changed their signage in which Irish is situated before English.