The first week in May saw many firefighters deployed to tackle gorse fires across Northern Ireland.
With the arrival of drier weather, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) issued a warning highlighting the extreme dangers and serious consequences of deliberate fire setting in the countryside.
Information released by NIFRS, showed that between May1, and May 8, 511 gorse fires were attended across Northern Ireland with 466 started deliberately.
NIFRS revealed that between May 1, and May 8, within the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council Areas, they attended 60 gorse fires and 55 of these fires were identified as deliberate.
Two fires took hold in the west of the province on Cuilcagh Mountain, Florence Court, County Fermanagh, within a 24-hour period, starting on May 6. The popular boardwalk that allows visitors to climb the mountain was closed during this time as a precautionary measure.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a reserve that they manage up at Cuilcagh to monitor breeding birds. Following the fire, Brad Robson, RSPB, Fermanagh Area Manager said: “The heather fires have had a devastating impact on wildlife, vegetation and peat. High densities of birds and breeding pairs live here. I have no doubt that 100’s of pairs of Meadow Pipit and Skylark have had their young wiped out.”
There is a large expanse of blanket bog running across the middle slopes of the mountain. It is regarded as one of the largest blanket bogs in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Robson explained: “Culcaigh Mountain is home to frogs, lizards, Irish Hare, moths, butterfly and many other insects and wildlife. In an event such as a fire nature dictates that it’s survival of the fittest and strongest, smaller weaker animals would never make it, it‘s just so sad.”
William Lee, an Agricultural Contractor who was working nearby at the time said: “Fires like these are devastating for the whole community, killing wildlife, severely damaging areas of beauty such as these, causing pollution and tying up our firefighters for days on end. It was lucky there were no human fatalities. To think that most of these fires are deliberate really annoys me.”
Reacting to the fires, Area Commander for NIFRS, Maurice Rafferty said: “Tackling gorse and wildland fires is extremely challenging for us. It means deploying firefighters and equipment to remote locations. This can be for prolonged periods of time with our crews working under hazardous and intense heat to bring the fires under control.”
Appealing to the public he said, “We are appealing to everyone within the local community to be aware of the dangers and consequences of deliberate fire setting.”
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) issued an urgent message to those involved in setting gorse fires to consider the consequences of their actions and asked anyone with information that could identify those involved, to contact their local police station on 101.
Superintendent Emma Bond said: “Gorse fires have the potential to cause widespread damage to the environment and harm to wildlife, as well as threatening homes, farms and the people living in those areas. Those setting fires may be putting their own lives at risk as well as the lives of the fire service personnel and other emergency services tasked to deal with them.”
On May 7, another large fire took place in the west at Slieve Beagh, Special Protection Area (SPA) within Mullaghfad Forest, Fivemiletown, County Fermanagh.
According to the NI Raptor Study Group two active Hen Harrier nests were destroyed on the site. One volunteer said: “ I watched the adults fly around one of the nests in confusion and shock as the flames came closer, with the female only abandoning the nest completely in the final minutes.”
The National Hen Harrier Survey 2016 showed that there were only a maximum of 50 pairs in Northern Ireland, and only eight pairs were successful in fledging young.
A spokesperson for the NI Raptor Group warned: “The nesting and hunting habitat for Hen Harriers in Northern Ireland is disappearing and the situation is more dire than any of us had imagined. This latest blow is heartbreaking.”
Reacting to the gorse fires Chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Councillor Stephen McCann said: “The majority of these fires were deliberate and I would urge anyone with information relating to who was involved in these fires, to contact the police.”
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA and DUP Leader, Arlene Foster said: “Many agencies are working to discover the cause of the gorse fires and stop any future incidents. I want to pay tribute to the firefighters who tackled the blazes and often endangered their own lives.”
Other news reports regarding the gorse fires can be found by clicking on the links below.
As public opinion towards the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland continues to positively grow Dr Gail Neill tells Nikki McKeown how its not all what it seems and how we are politically lagging behind the rest of UK.
LGBTQ rights in Northern Ireland continue to be the least advanced in the UK and although the LGBTQ community in Northern Ireland is now more visible than ever young people are experiencing isolation within society and even within their own families.
At this time Youth Action Northern Ireland has extended their Out & About mentoring programme to LGBTQ women aged 16-25. This programme is based on having an informal, supportive relationship with a youth worker and the benefits that can arise from this.
Out and About is a personal development programme and a support space for young women who want to get information and advice outside of the gay scene.
It gives young women the chance to find out more about their gender, sexual orientation, their rights and to meet other young people in a safe space.
“We work to try and include the most marginalized women within society to ensure that those who are most often overlooked- their voices are heard”, explains Programme Co-ordinator Dr Gail Neill.
“There is definitely a need for a space like this for young women” says Gail. “On one hand things are changing very positively in Northern Ireland – a recent poll showed that 70% of people were in favour of equality marriage”.
“All this makes it feel like things are fine yet on the other hand in NI- there are still high levels of LGBTQ hate crimes that go unreported. Politically we are lagging behind the rest of the UK continuously using religious discourse for politicians to deny or stall a way forward.”
Three years of funding has been given to Youth Action by the Esmee Fairbairn foundation and this will allow 30 young women a year to go through the programme.
Young LGBTQ women can access one to one sessions where they can seek support to identify and overcome personal barriers they are facing.
One of the young people availing from the programme is a girl from a very rural area, she has just recently ‘came out’ and her first action point is simple to meet some LGBTQ friends.
Statistics from ‘Still Shouting’ –research published by Youth NI and Cara-friend looks at the negative impact of growing up in a homophobic society.
The reports show that statistics for self-harm have risen 26% since 2003, eating disorders face no change in over a decade and attempted suicide has dropped by a mere 4% in 13 years.
“In a 13 year period you’re led to believe things are moving forward but actually the experiences of young people are still entrenched in homophobia.”
“Research then shows the impact of growing up in an environment like that. For example LGBTQ women have a less positive experience at school. They face trans and homophobic bullying and as a result of not wanting to be outed or wanting their parents to find out there is less reporting of this at school”.
In terms of accessing information, support and services- Gail explains that young LGBTQ people remain invisible. They don’t have the same kind of support around their sexual and mental health.
“In a piece of research that we did in schools one pupil said ‘even if it had of been mentioned it would have helped me feel more normal’, -for young people- it just contributes to feelings of being different like it is a secret and they have to remain invisible”.
One of the young women on the programme told me how the mentoring programme has ‘changed her life’. “It was the casual part of the programme that interested me, I didn’t want to sit in a room and talk about my problems for an hour and a half”.
“The programme has made me feel a lot more confident I’m more comfortable in my own skin and have made a new friend in my mentor,” said the women.
Out & Mentoring reaches out to young women with a casual approach- meeting can take place over a cup of coffee or during a walk
Youth Action NI want to avoid a ‘counselling like scenario’ as this can reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with the individual- that they are the problem instead of society.
Our aim is to make the programme as accessible as possible- not many young people will put their hand up and say I want to come and sit and talk with you for 90 minutes jokes Gail.
“What we want to do is create environments where women can talk about things when it arises in ways that are comfortable”.
Mentors are based in Belfast, Derry and Fermanagh with a Northern Ireland wide remit and there is no cost for the programme.
Grace Verner, from Ballinamallard in County Fermanagh, will leave Northern Ireland this Friday to work at a children’s camp in the USA.
The twenty-year-old South West College student, is currently undertaking a Foundation Science Degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management. After being told she needed to complete 26 weeks industry placement, Grace decided to go and work in the tourism sector within a children’s camp.
Grace had always heard her older brother refer to camp with such fondness.“He would be smiling from ear to ear and always had great stories to tell, in-fact this will be his eighth year heading out”, she said.
Grace and her brother will travel together to Pierce Camp Birchmont, in New Hampshire, USA. “Around 250 children will attend the camp and they range from seven-15 years-old”, Grace explained.
Not one to set off and forget home Grace said “ I will really miss the rest of my family, my dog and the warm feeling of home.”
Grace is a huge music fan and said, “I won’t be leaving home without my headphones and Spotify, I can’t go a day without listening to music.”
To find out more about Grace’s travel plans, please click on the link to my video report below.
Andersonstown Leisure Centre is to close its doors on May 29 so that refurbishment works can begin.
Plans for the new centre were revealed in March as part of Belfast City Council’s £105m Leisure Transformation Programme . The programme aims to promote the Andersonstown facilities as the centre for water-based family fun.
The new centre is due to open in the summer 2019 with users advised to use other council leisure facilities in the meantime.
£25million was invested into the project, which will provide a family fun water centre and dry leisure facilities.
However staff at the Leisure Centre have said they are angry at the lack of information they have received regarding the future of their jobs when the centre closes.
Deborah Boyle has worked as a receptionist in the centre from when it was first built in 1979.
She claims that staff have been given an “unfair choice” and that some still do not know if they will be given employment in other council leisure centres. Mrs Boyle says:
“They’ve offered us a redundancy package which is pathetic. It’s pittance.
I’ve worked here for nearly 40 years, loads of us have been here since the beginning.
It’s an unfair choice, either take the redundancy or wait around and hope there’s room for you somewhere else.”
The renovation follows the opening of the state-of-the-art Olympia Leisure Centre located on Boucher Road, Belfast.
Now simply named ‘The Olympia’ the centre is managed by the GLL ‘Better’ brand which has worked in partnership with Belfast city council to operate leisure centres since 2015.
“Just not good enough”
People Before Profit Councillor Matthew Collins says that both staff and the community haven’t been given sufficient opportunity to voice their concerns. Mr Collins claims:
“I’ve spoken to the community and staff members who are not happy with the development plans.
Consultation was minimal from the start and it is just not good enough that some staff have been left confused when the closure is so soon.”
Swimming instructor Brendan Mulholland has been running swimming lessons for children for over 20 years in Andersonstown.
Brendan will be taking lessons in Whiterock until the building is finished and understands the need for renovation, but disagrees with the design plans of the new centre. He says:
“I’m trying to teach young people how to swim competitively and they’re making this place into a kiddies fun centre.
The council don’t care they just want to get as many people as possible through the doors”
The agreed facilities are:
large family fun focused area of leisure water
25m six lane pool with 50 spectator seats
Confidence water for small children and toddlers
140 station fitness suite
Range of outdoor provision such as five-a-side pitches
“It definitely needs modernised.”
Regular gym user Clare Bannon says that new facilities are needed. Clare says:
“The rooms aren’t very well ventilated and the spin studio and gym can get so warm that you’re sweating before you’ve started working out! It definitely needs modernised.”
Ventilation, changing rooms and dry areas are to be improved upon under the new plans.
A Belfast City Council spokesman has stated:
“Having developed initial designs for the new facility, we carried out a community consultation in September 2016.
Based on the feedback from this consultation the designs for the new centre were further refined.
We carried out a further period of consultation and recognise the importance of engaging staff to ensure they are aware of plans going forward.”
The new Andersonstown Leisure Centre is due to open in summer 2019.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have created a car crash simulator in a bid to make the roads of Northern Ireland a safer place.
Aimed at students and young drivers, the simulator takes the passenger through a real story about a fatal car crash in Wales from around 10 years ago.
Starting from the beginning of the day, passengers will go through the events leading up to the crash, the fatal accident, as well as witnessing the role of the police after the accident.
Constable Crutchley, from the PSNI Road Safety Department, believes the simulator has a positive impact, “The purpose of the simulator is to try and make people think about the decisions they make when in a car.
“We get involved in education, we get involved in enforcement and we also work with other agencies to make roads safer through engineering.”
As the simulator was at Ulster University on an icy February morning, Constable Crutchley has some extra advice for motorists in difficult conditions.
“Don’t take chances,” he believes, “Be prepared and make sure that your car is defrosted properly before heading off in the morning.
“We hate to see motorists peering through a little gap in their front windscreen.”
What if you didn’t have a supermarket, a butcher shop, or a greengrocer, to rely for purchasing groceries? Plucking the potatoes from the soil mightn’t be too difficult. Could you gather carrots from a vegetable patch? You mightn’t find much difficulty collecting mint leaves for your favourite sauce — perfect with lamb. But if you had to acquire that leg of lamb by purely your own means, could you do it? This is the moral dilemma which has caused more people than ever to ditch meat and dairy products, and embrace the lifestyle of veganism. In the UK, the movement is gaining particular traction amongst young people.
The conversation on animal welfare is becoming ever more prominent. Vegetarian and veganism, ideas that were considered fringe and unconventional for decades, are now becoming mainstream — this is evidenced in television shows like Eastenders and Mrs Brown’s Boys fitting vegan-related storylines into their shows.
The debate on the consumption of meat has even found its way into the higher echelons of politics. In February 2017, the German government banned any meat products from official government functions, favouring instead menu of vegetarian fare. The decision came about — in the words of Germany’s environmental minister, Barbara Hendricks — so Germany could be a “role model” by ditching meat for sustainability and environmental issues.
Others argued that their freedom was being impinged, with German minister of food and agriculture, Christian Schmidt, stating, “I’m not having this Veggie Day through the back door. Instead of nanny-stateism and ideology, I believe in diversity and freedom of choice.”
Concerns of animal welfare is not the only motivation why people are eschewing meat. Another driving factor in the upward trend of veganism is the perceived health benefits of a plant-based diet. According to registered nutritionist and former member of Jamie Oliver’s nutrition team, Mary Lynch, those who follow an average vegan diet can have higher levels of vitamin C and fibre, as well as having a lower intake of saturated fat.
There is a common misconception, however, that if one eats a vegan diet it is automatically healthy — that is not the case. According to a vegan diet guideline, published by the NHS, those who follow a vegan diet can be prone to deficiencies in vitamin B12 (a vitamin predominantly found in meat and dairy) as well as other essential nutrients like calcium and iron.
However, with careful planning it is possible to maintain a healthy vegan diet. For example: most milk alternatives, by companies like Alpro and Koko Dairy Free, contain the essential vitamins and minerals that aren’t typically found in vegan foods.
Butchers were in dismay at Direct Action Everywhere’s vegan protest in Ballymena
When the matter in hand is what is on the dinner plate, people feel gutturally obliged to enter the argument. The controversial nature of the debate on eating meat was clear on the 25th March 2017, when a group of animal rights protestors from the organisation Direct Action Everywhere (abbreviated as DxE) stormed into five butcher shops in Ballymena — disrupting business on a busy Saturday afternoon.
As stated on their website, the goal of Direct Action Everywhere is the complete abolition of any industry that produces animal products. The group posted a video on Facebook, chants of “it’s not food, it’s violence” and “their bodies: not ours”, with some shoppers stating that their children were in shock. In a post on Facebook, the DxE group stated they faced “violence, speciesism, sectarianism” from shoppers.
Initiatives like Veganuary — set up by the eponymous charitable organisation — is representative in changes in people’s hearts and minds. The initiative encourages people to give up animal products for the month of January. Last year a survey was conducted for participants of Veganuary, with 81 percent confirming that they would maintain the changes they adopted.
In 2016, around 23,000 people from 10 countries took part in the Veganuary initiative. That figure increased to 60,000 participants in 2017 — a 62 percent increase.
Vegan Food Sales Are Increasing
As of November 2016, vegan food sales in the UK have increased by 1,500 percent since 2015, according to the London Economic. This year the supermarket giant, Tesco, has realised this increase in demand, and has committed to marking any vegan/vegetarian products they sell with a vegan or vegetarian logo. A spokesperson for Tesco remarked, “We will take a phased approach to updating our product labels with the aim to complete this process within the next two years.’
How has the rise of veganism impacted the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland?
Despite this increase in demand, agriculture still maintains its position as one of the largest industries in Northern Ireland, with one eighth of UK citizens owing a living to agriculture. One organisation representing the 29,000-strong farming community in Northern Ireland is the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster — a non-sectarian organisation set-up open to anyone interested in rural life. YFC has around 2,600 members, from the ages of 12 to 30.
I spoke to the former Chairman of the Tyrone branch of YFC and Castlederg-native, Peter Smith, and asked him if he is concerned if the increasing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism will have an impact on his farming business. From the start of the interview Peter proudly pinned his colours to the post, stating that he was an omnivore, when I asked how he’d describe his eating habits.
I then asked him his thoughts on the vegan protest in Ballymena on 25th March 2017, and I asked whether he thought their methods of protesting were effective in encouraging people to adopt a vegan diet:
I asked Peter if he has ever been on the receiving end of a protest regarding animal rights, or if he knows anyone in his Young Farmers Club who has had that experience:
I highlighted to Peter the upward trend of veganism, stating to him the increase in popularity of vegan festivals in the UK, as well as the increased number of people signing up for initiatives like Veganuary. I asked if he’s worried about his future business prospects as a farmer:
The NHS state that meat products can be consumed as part of a balanced diet, and are high in essential nutrients like iron and protein. I asked Peter, with that in mind, does he believe that meat is essential to maintaining a balanced diet:
I asked Peter whether or not he thought criticism of poor living standards of animals in farms like his own is justified:
For fast food chains like McDonalds, KFC or Burger King, factory farms are a reality — places where animals exist in cramped living conditions and where there is a premium on expediency of meat production, and where the animals’ welfare takes a lesser priority. I asked Peter what he thought of factory farms:
Interview with Dunbia Meat Factory employee
Interested into the candid details of what happens on the factory floor of an abattoir — a topic usually shrouded in a veil of mystery and secrecy — I met with a worker from the Dunbia meat factory in Dungannon who wished to remain anonymous. I asked him about the process of how an animal becomes a product of meat that is sold in supermarkets:
Irish Vegan Festival 2017
The Irish Vegan Festival — an event organised by the animal sanctuary Farplace Animal Rescue — took place on Saturday 13th May 2017. The festival is not only a showcase for Irish vegan produce, but festival goers could also enjoy live music, talks, cooking demonstrations, as well as purchase literature, clothing and cosmetic products.
This year the festival was in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall to meet increasing popularity of the event, with over 5,000 more people attending the event than 2016. VIP Tickets to the festival sold out within a day of the event announcement, in August 2016 — with 60 percent of the tickets sold in the seven hours.
The increase in popularity of the Irish Vegan Festival correlates to the upward trend of people attending vegan festivals across the UK. In 2015, there were 36 Vegan festivals/fairs throughout the UK & Ireland. That number increased to 82 in 2016, and so far this year 130 festivals are scheduled — according to vegan news website vegfest.co.uk.
The charts below show a 261 percent increase in vegan festivals throughout the UK and Ireland from 2015, compared with 2017.
Vegan Festivals in UK 2017
Vegan Festivals in UK 2016
Vegan Festivals in UK 2015
Eating Vegan in Belfast
There are now more vegan-friendly restaurants than ever before in Belfast. Restaurants like The Honest Vegan, Giro’s Café, 387 Lisburn Road and Iho, are Belfast-based restaurants offering exclusively vegan fare.
In a recent trip to The Honest Vegan — a restaurant that that begun a couple years ago under the name That Vegan Café (V) — I noticed they have introduced two separate tip jars beside their till: one labelled “vegan”, the other labelled “non-vegan.” I spoke to the member of staff, who said that it was a “ongoing social experiment” to roughly gauge the diet demographic of their clientele. He reported that the jars usually contain similar amounts of money, and he said he has been pleasantly surprised how the omnivorous community in South Belfast has embraced the vegan cuisine on offer in the restaurant.
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.
UNITE THE UNION GIVES THE PEOPLE A CHANCE TO GRILL POLITICIANS OVER BALLYMENA JOB LOSSES
Unite the Union, Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union, held a public meeting in The Braid town hall in Ballymena last night.
The aim of the meeting was to address the issues of a lack of investment and job cuts that have hit the town and surrounding areas in recent months. Over one thousand manufacturing jobs are due to be lost in Ballymena with the announcement of the closures of tyre company Michelin and tobacco factory JTI Gallaher. Bosses at the two companies broke the news to their staff just before Christmas and doors are due to be shut for good in the summer.
Jamie Delargy, UTV’s Business Editor, chaired the meeting, which saw eight representatives from each of the political parties standing in the upcoming assembly elections face questions from the public. Over a hundred people, some employees of the ill-fated companies marked for closure, filled the auditorium in The Braid town hall in search of answers to the escalating issue.
The sense of anger within the crowd was palpable as the evening started off with one audience member pointing the finger of blame squarely at the politicians and their lack of action in preventing these factory closures in the town. DUP representative David McIlveen defended the performance of his party in the executive, stating that they had overseen the creation of 40,000 new jobs across Northern Ireland since the start of the last assembly term in 2011. This answer was met with a grumble from the crowd and jeers of “Not in Ballymena” from one man.
Another audience member, a worker for Chain Reaction Cycles based in Doagh, raised the issue of the bicycle manufacturing company’s announcement of a merger with English competitor Wiggle. The announcement came in February, and the man said he was issuing a formal ‘notice’ to the politicians of the workers fears that their jobs are in jeopardy. The worry for many, he said, was that jobs could be relocated to Wiggle’s base in Portsmouth and the merger was more like a “takeover.”
Adrian Cochrane-Watson, UUP MLA for South Antrim, responded by saying that he had close ties with the manufacturing sector and was a long-time trade union supporter. He informed the disgruntled worker that he had met with executives at Wiggle and was working on ensuring that no jobs were lost in Northern Ireland as a result of the merger.
Much of the latter portion of the evening saw audience members voicing their disillusionment in the performance of Invest NI, the body responsible for bringing jobs and investment in the region. Many felt that Invest NI’s focus was only on Belfast and they had done little to encourage investment in smaller towns such as Ballymena and Larne.
Lack of jobs for qualified teachers and drops in the profits of local farmers were also among the concerns of various audience members. Those on the panel however, could do little to appease the crowd, other than with assurances that they would try harder in the next five years.
It is one week before the assembly elections; candidates and their respective parties are making last minute moves to try and sway voters; that is one of the few things that they all have in common.
Well, there is one other thing that they have all agreed on, and that is the reduction of numbers bill. This has received cross community support.
In 2021 our MLAs will decrease in number from 108 to 90. This means that there will be five MLAs for each of the 18 constituencies instead of six.
It seems simple enough; my question is who is going to be the one unlucky person to be cut from each constituency.
Will the bill aggravate an existing problem?
In the devolved government of Northern Ireland only 23 out of the current 108 MLAs are women, so just under 21%.
In the assembly in five years from now (when eighteen politicians have to go) who is going to move aside or who is going to be pushed aside by their parties?
What is going to happen to the women in a government where there is already a gender-gap? Will they have space on a stage that is already taken up mostly by male players?
Caitriona Ruane (Sinn Féin) raised this question last year when the bill was being discussed.
She said: “What I would like to see is a much more representative House, with many more women in it. In bringing about the changes that we are bringing about, I am aware that reports have shown that there are potential dangers to women.
“We will come back here in 2021 worse than we are now, and where we are now is nothing short of disgraceful.”
If we are in a “disgraceful” state now, what will it be like when we have to find some politicians to cut?
Does the ‘M’ in MLA stand for man? Most of the parties are against applying quotas, so if this is not resolved by 2021 will Sinn Féin still think that the bill is a good idea?
Sinn Féin is one of the few parties that wants to implement quotas (along with the Greens).
Ms Ruane also said: “If we are really to change things, I argue that we need quotas. That is why I am going to argue here that I do not think that 2016 is the time to make the changes, because I do not want to see unrepresentativeness. It will only create even more difficulties down the line.”
Paula Bradley (DUP) told me that she had similar concerns. She said that she agrees that there needs to be a reduction of numbers, but had fears that women will be further under-represented in politics.
She said: “My greatest worry would be that it would penalise women, because we have found at election time it’s the women that lose out in the end.”
She acknowledged that there is already a small enough number of women in politics and the reduction of MLAs might “jeopardise” the gender further, but that it was “up to the parties” to “mitigate this” concern by “putting women in winnable seats.”
Not all women in politics share our concern. Baroness May Blood told me that she does not believe that this is: “a gender issue.”
Professor Monica McWilliams believes that the reduction of numbers does not have to impact women trying to get into politics: “if the parties adopted an affirmative action programme where they selected women to stand for safe seats.”
‘If’ being the operative word here.
Steven Agnew said that the Greens support the bill, but do share my “concerns about the impact on the number of female MLAs which is why [they] proposed there should be a minimum one third quota of female candidates for all political parties.”
Alliance wanted to see the bill in place for next week’s elections, instead of the next one.
Chris Lyttle (Alliance) personally proposed an amendment to the bill that would have seen the reduction in time for the upcoming elections, but the other parties blocked this proposal.
Mr Lyttle told me why he wanted to bring the change so early.
He said: “This would have saved approximately £11m over five years, which could have been reinvested in front-line public services in dire need of funding, for example health. The other parties blocked this proposal but I am still no clearer as to why it would be appropriate in 2021 but not 2016.”
He acknowledged that something has to be done to address the gender-gap, but does not believe that the bill will affect women.
He said: “I am proud to work with many talented women in the Alliance Party but I strongly agree that we need to do all we can to encourage more women to get involved in politics.”
He went on to say that “I don’t think the number of MLAs is a key factor in whether women decide to get involved in politics or are elected or not,” but said that he is not sure “what steps need to be taken to address the under-representation.”
I said at the beginning that the bill is something that our politicians have in common, because it received cross community support, but their opinions on whether the proposed change will affect women is another matter.
Everyone disagrees on whether the reduction will affect women, but what is clear is that there is a gender-gap in Northern Irish politics, and it will probably not change next week when the same old politicians are voted in as usual.
As for 2021, we will have to wait until five years’ time to see what parties will put women forward for winnable seats for an assembly made up of only 90 MLAs.
On the 27th of April the Dublin Institute of Technology DJ Society hosted an analogue music seminar in collaboration with renowned local electronic music artist Matt Flanagan, better known as DeFeKT.
The event, which took place in The Bull and Castle in Dublin, was the second in series of seminars hosted by the group. Members of the society aim to invite a number of artists to share their experience and expertise with those participating. DeFeKT, who has been active in the electro scene for a number of years, was invited to educate participants about analogue and modular music.
Entry into the event was free, however, there were a number of collections for the suicide and self-harm prevention charity, Pieta House. There was standing room only during the seminar, as the venue was filled to capacity.
Proceedings began with a modular synthesis workshop, in which DeFeKT gave a live musical demonstration of his improvised analogue sound. Following the musical display, he went on to talk at length about his experiences during his career as an artist. The informal lecture covered a broad range of topics including his own live shows, his knowledge of the music industry, and music production methods. Audience members were then invited to take part in a Q&A session with the artist. Aspiring musicians and music fans were given the opportunity to create a dialogue about the music scene, and to ask for advice in relation to their own careers.
As the seminar came to an end, those in attendance were invited to stay for a number of DJ performances from members of the DIT DJ society. The society plan to host a number of other seminars in future.
If you or a friend are feeling suicidal, or in distress, help is available from Pieta House: http://www.pieta.ie/