Category Archives: Politics

Wide-scale resistance to the household charge in Donegal

 

William Burton investigates public reaction to the imposition of the household charge in Donegal

 

The implementation of the household charge of €100 has been one of the most controversial aspects of the economic collapse in Ireland. With revenue sources depleted after the property crash, the government is seeking additional revenue raising powers, demanded by the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund after the bail-out in November, 2010.

With the collapse of the property boom in Ireland, the construction reliant tax-base was eroded and government spending increased due to increased unemployment. The household charge and the eventual property tax are to replace the exchequer element of local government finances, set up in 1999 as a source of funding for local services.

Ireland had domestic rates until they were abolished for electoral reasons by a Fianna Fail government in 1979. People are not used to domestic charges on their property in Ireland. Property related revenue funds are greatly diminished from the so-called “Celtic Tiger” period.

An energetic and dedicated Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay Campaign has resulted in over 700,000 households having not paid by the deadline date, 31st March. This in some ways is not surprising. The government rolled out the same TDs, over and over again, to try and persuade people to pay. The message was simple from the government. Local services needed to be paid for and central government can no longer fund local services such as road repairs, libraries and fire and emergency services.

The bailout by the troika (EU, ECB, IMF) was underpinned by an agreement for Ireland to implement a range of revenue-raising exercises. The household charge, to be followed next year by a progressive property tax, is just one of those exercises.

The Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay campaign is buoyed by members of the United Left Alliance and Sinn Fein who oppose the charge. Pádraig Maclochlainn, Sinn Fein TD for Donegal North East, is urging people to resist paying the household charge which he considers an unfair tax.

“The Government has chosen to implement a household charge that is regressive and clearly unfair. Our choice would have been different. We believe in a fair and progressive taxation system,” said Mr Maclochlainn.

Citizens were confused as to what the charge was for, and, because they did not receive a physical bill, there was no urgency. It is fair to say that for many citizens they felt that there was no tangible benefit in paying this charge. The people did not cause this economic meltdown, so in theory the people should not pay for it.

In County Donegal the Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay Campaign, has been especially successful in persuading people not to pay. When driving anywhere in the county there are placards and signs attached to lampposts urging people to resist and to not register for the charge. By the 31st March, 2012, 70% of homes had still not paid the charge.

Donegal County Council is urging people to pay or otherwise they warn there will be a significant shortfall in revenue for the council to provide services such as road repairs, libraries and crucially, fire and emergency services.

The clergy in Donegal have spoken up about the issue. Gaoth Dobhair priest Father Brian O’Fearraigh has urged people to resist the payment which he calls, “unfair and unjust.”

Father O’Fearraigh recently addressed a large protest in Letterkenny in which he urged people to keep fighting: “We, the people say: No to household charges. We the people say: No to water charges. We the people say: No to septic tank registration fees. We the people say: We Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The intervention of Father O’Fearraigh in the debate has been met with criticism by a local Labour Senator, Jimmy Harte, who said: “It is totally irresponsible for a member of the Church to say to people not to pay the charge.”

Referring directly to Father O’Fearraigh, Senator Harte suggested he should re-read his scriptures and remember that when the Jews did not want to pay their taxes to Caesar, Jesus said: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” For Senator Harte, the same principle applies. “If you use the services, you have to contribute to pay for them,” said the Senator.

County Donegal will suffer if people refuse to pay the household charge, Senator Harte has warned. This in turn will put pressure on local business rates as Donegal County Council needs to raise the revenue because central government is cutting their funding for local services. “You cannot be an à la carte citizen and decide what taxes you will pay, and ones you won’t pay,” Senator Harte added.

What is clear from the debate around the household charge is that the government is not changing course like the septic tank charge. The septic tank inspection charge was significantly reduced from €50 for the first three months, to €5, due to pressure from campaign and rural living groups.

The revenue envisioned from a full, progressive property tax next year, it is hoped, will begin to reduce the gap between government spending and tax-take. The state has pledged under the EU, IMF and ECB bailout to implement a range of taxes and the household charge is just the start. Water charges will be the next hurdle for the government to overcome and persuade people that these additional taxes are needed, and will help the state build a sustainable tax-base.

It is doubtful whether the government will be seen to make any u-turn on the first stage of implementation of the €100 household charge. What cannot be in doubt is the public’s hostility towards further taxes and the furore and passion it creates.

Revolutions rage around the world

By  Emma-Kate O’Reilly

December 21, 2012 is the end-date for the ancient Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. Maybe not the apocalypse as we imagine it literally but metaphorically. Maybe the Mayans were playing with the idea of a new collective conscience being born.
Something strange has a hold on the world. It’s palpable to the intuitive; even the not so intuitive are starting to question some things. People are really beginning to think things through rather than accept what the “Ministry of Truth” tells them to think, feel and act. Revolution, rebellion, uprising, usurping are rampant around the world.
Fearful whispers of wrongdoing have metamorphosed into defiant declarations of war against corruption. The streets are alive. The pulse is racing through every protestor. Pushed to the limit, on the edge, they are standing united, brought together in desperation in a crusade against their tyrannical leaders. From under the harsh whip of injustice and oppression, their survival instinct has been ignited. They have discovered a powerful weapon. It’s spreading like wildfire and the intense fire is burning brightly.
Images invoke an innate sense of empathy from within. Boundaries and nationalities have become blurred. Ground-breaking changes of Christians forming protective circles around Muslims at prayer epitomises this raw radicalism. Basic human rights should be the same everywhere. The thirst for change will not be quenched by empty promises.
However, this is not a new concept.

The sixties were a turbulent tempestuous time of protests and activism against the tyrannies. There will always be uprisings and always be war waged upon the wrongdoers. People, ideals, minority ethnicities, nations will be beaten down, but they will gather themselves up together and start again. There has been a domino effect unfolding all across North Africa. It echoes the revolutionary wave of 1848 that swept over Europe.

Ordinary men have taken it upon themselves to make a difference. The elderly who have lived in fear under the crack of the oppressive whip seem to admire the raw energy of the younger generation.
But where do we ordinary people who are not from such a place fit in to all of this?
We read about these war ravaged lands, then flick the page and forget about it. We watch coverage of these atrocities on the news, then flick the channel and forget about it. Advertisements come on and are much easier to digest than the destruction that is going on in the world.

Bombarded with so many images of war have we become immune to them? Have you ever wondered what it’s really like to be on the ground working in one of these conflict zones, instead of passively observing it from the safety of our own homes?
I spoke to two people who have to try to get a taste of the reality of living in such a place and to find out what these people do out there.

Kathy Keary was working for a human rights and development organisation based in East Jerusalem called Al-Maqdese in a research and advocacy position.
She said: “My role consisted mostly of writing socio-legal research projects on pressing issues in the city, such as the effects of housing demolitions on the women of East Jerusalem and worker’s rights in the city. It was a Palestinian organisation so it dealt only with Palestinian issues in the city. I was carrying out interviews with effected people and also reviewing available literature on the subject.”
In addition to the research projects she also did a whole myriad of other tasks including, “editing other people’s work (I was the only native English speaker in the office), applying to various human rights networks for membership, submitting documents to various UN special rapporteurs and committees, and attending UN working group meetings and conferences on behalf of the organisation. I also did a little bit of project proposal and development work.”

She spoke about the difficulties she faced in working for the organisation. She said: “Because I speak neither Arabic nor Hebrew I found it very difficult to carry out research without assistance and getting people to provide me with necessary information was almost impossible on some occasions. Also on a couple of occasions I disagreed with policy decisions of the organisation.”

Culture differences are another aspect of working in conflict countries. Things that we take for granted here have to be fought for there, like the freedom to go wherever you want.

“The culture differences between there and here are stark. The most difficult thing to get used to is the Israeli oppression and control. If you decide to travel anywhere you will more than likely have to pass through a checkpoint manned by soldiers and there are constant reminders of the occupation.”

She talked about how challenging it is to try to help the people and how restrained you are in what you can do. She said: “You are also constantly working on stories and cases of grave injustice and this can be quite frustrating when you realise that what you can do to rectify any of these is severely limited.”

When you are on the ground in a conflict zone you can’t flick. You can’t forget. Kathy said: “My office was right beside the wall that divides the West bank from Jerusalem so I was constantly reminded of the conflict.
“The strength and resilience of the Palestinian people is staggering and they are incredibly friendly.”

Michael McCaughan is a journalist who is no stranger to working in unstable societies. He has reported from all over the Americas, North, Central and South. From far flung places like Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, but he spent most of his time in a place called Chiapas in south east Mexico where he lived from 1993 to 2001.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation is a revolutionary leftist group based there, seeking control of their local resources, especially land. The indigenous people there have, since 1994, declared war “against the Mexican state”. I asked him about what it’s really like to be on the ground working in a country of conflict.

“In a place of armed conflict, despite the chaos, people try to escape it by doing ordinary everyday things. When the Mexican army were on the verge of attacking these villages the people continued with their everyday life. They use normality as a form of resistance to what’s surrounding them.”

He talked about how people want to tell you their stories. He spoke of how harrowing it is to listen to testimony of people getting tortured and hunted down, imprisoned, mistreated and suffering cruel injustices.

He told me of how emotionally difficult it is to hear these people’s stories and yet as a journalist you have to fulfil your duty. “You are the voice of people who have no voice. It’s your responsibility to tell their stories. You are the bridge between what is happening to people in these countries and getting it across to the rest of the world.

“You develop relationships with the local people. They tell you intimate stories about what has happened to them. They have an emotional impact on you”.

He spoke about the strength of people, “the resistance they have against forced conditions of unjust authorities”.

He said, when amongst the locals, “You have to show respect, humility, compassion and just listening to them is terribly important.”

Some people think to help these countries we should just go in and take over. Tell them what to do.

But by speaking to Kathy Keary and Michael McCaughan, it has reaffirmed what I thought.

That by listening to people from conflict zones we can learn, be aware of what’s happening to them and through people going out and working with them, try to find resolutions.
Through this social awareness and coming together in defiance against injustices and oppression, maybe we can try to make the world a better place.

Fracking concern for Ballycastle councillor

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By Paul Mullin

A Ballycastle councillor has warned of the damage a controversial new gas extraction process could cause to Northern Ireland.

The process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s more commonly known, takes place by drilling rocks in order to get natural gas.

Shale rock, which is common all over the North West of Ireland, makes it an attractive opportunity for gas companies. The reserves of natural gas in counties Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Donegal and Fermanagh could be worth £80 billion at current prices.

The controversy of fracking comes in the methods used in order to get the gas. A combination of water, chemicals and sand, with the use of explosives, is forced into the natural fractures in the rock, which allows the fractures to widen further. The water and chemicals are pumped out, but the sand stays behind, propping the fracture apart which allows the gas to be extracted.

This process was the subject of an Oscar nominated documentary called “Gaslands” which showed the hazards caused by fracking. The documentary followed the fracking process in Pennsylvania, USA and its effect on the residents in the areas were drilling had taken place. It found that chemicals had found their way into the drinking water and in several instances it showed that a lit match next to a running tap turned it into a ball of flames.

The film contained interviews with residents and scientific experts which warned of the health risks and wider environmental impact.

Councillor Donal Cunninham from the Moyle District Council is one such person who opposes fracking in NI as it currently operates. He said: “The process has not achieved or proven itself safe, and it also increases greenhouse emissions which we should be looking to reduce.” The councillor plans on public showings of ‘Gaslands’ in both Ballycastle and Rathlin and urges the public to come along and see the potential dangers for themselves.

Two companies –Tamboran Resources and the Lough Allen Natural Gas company – have been granted onshore gas exploration licences in the North West. Although it is in the infancy stage proper commercial drilling could happen within four years.

Richard Moorman, the CEO of Tamboran, has moved to emphasise how safe fracking now is and the benefits it will have for NI. He said: “Tamboran is commited to brining forward a natural gas project in Northern Ireland that has the potential to create significant meaningful local employment, tax revenues and local commercial spending.”

He went onto add how important the process is for NI’s own gas needs.  As it stands NI imports nearly 90% of its natural gas needs and by exploring fracking Moorman says it will: “Significantly reduce Northern Ireland’s vulnerability to potential future supply shortages.”

The impact of fracking goes beyond health and environmental issues and has raised concern about its impact on tourism in the North West of Ireland. Tourism is worth £120 million to the area and one of the major tourist attractions is the Shannon Erne, which is the longest navigable waterway in Ireland, it is feared that fracking could lead to water contamination, which could have a knock on affect on the Erne as a tourist attraction.

The two counties have 4,000 farm holdings between them and if fracking chemicals were to get into the water and food chain it could be devastating for the area. Residents have argued that if the fracking does go ahead it will affect the rural landscape with drilling pads of 12 acres every two square kms being deployed in the choosen fracking areas.

When asked about this Moorman stressed how paramount the issue of health, safety and conservation was to the company. He said: “It is essential that our operations are conducted without a single incident of water or air contamination and with respect for all landowners and residents by absolutely minimising surface impacts as well as traffic and noise levels.”

He went onto say: “All of our operations will be conducted to the highest standards of natural gas extraction, as  demonstrated by our commitment to completely eliminate chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process, as well as to conduct two month baseline surveys of groundwater quality, air quality, noise levels, and seismic activity before proceeding to drill any well.”

Concillor Cunningham remains unconvinced though and points to how the process is banned in France, and parts of Canada, Australia and even in the US (it is banned in New York state despite heavy lobbying from the gas industry)

Cunningham added: “Most of the industry are now claiming that they will eliminate chemicals from the fracking process. Chemicals made up 1% of the fluid. Two factors are responsible for the contamination of groundwater – fracking fluid and methane. So the industry is only addressing one of our concerns.”

He went onto add that the government and assembly should focus on developing renewable energy which he says will create new green businesses and jobs.

Cookstown looking good, looking great


November brought good news for Cookstown’s manufacuturing and construction sectors, with confirmation funds for a new police academy have been secured. Cookstown council is taking an active role in helping the towns small businesses. Michelle Loughran looks at the reasons why the district should not forget its rural roots …

Cookstown recently received a welcome economic boost with news that funding for a new training college has been secured.

Based outside the town, Desertcret College will provide training facilities for the PSNI, Prison and Fire Services.

Cookstown council estimates this should create around 305 construction jobs. This is a positive development for the entire district.

At the height of the recession in 2009 unemployment rose by 190% across the Cookstown district.

The councils’ economic review for 2010 stated these phenomenally high levels of unemployment were “mainly due to Cookstown having one of the highest proportions of employment in the manufacturing, construction and retail sectors in NI”.

With construction on the college due to start in 2013 there is a real possibility it could be too late for the large manufacturing and construction sector which is already struggling.

Ciaran Higgins, manager of the towns Enterprise Centre said the area has been hit with job losses because Cookstown has a relatively small public service sector.

He said: “One of the reasons this region is one of the more entrepreneurial in Northern Ireland is going back 20 years there was a lack of public sector jobs and investment.”

This developed the mantra if you wanted a job “you go out and make work for yourself”.

One of the growing problems rural manufacturing companies face is consumer buying patterns are changing. As incomes are stretched further people now want cheap products and these are not always available locally.

Martin Loughran runs a small furniture business specialising in bespoke hand-made kitchens. Based outside Cookstown production has gradually slumped from 2009 and order levels are not improving.

Martin said: “People are not coming forward, quality work has gone, the customer base has dropped completely and that’s the type of work we relied on.”

Customers now want budget kitchens for a variety of reasons. He said: “People are being careful and are not prepared to spend excess money”.

Concerns about job security remain prominent and rising inflation has squeezed disposable income. Consumer tastes have also evolved and products that can be changed regularly are now fashionable.

Martin recognises this change and has adapted his product portfolio to include a cheaper range of kitchens but finds it difficult to compete with large competitors like Ikea or Homebase which has a Cookstown store.

These problems are reflective of those most independent manufacturing businesses now face as competition for work has increased dramatically. The threat of a double dipped recession means pressures are unlikely to ease anytime soon.

Cookstown Council has developed schemes to help local businesses and increase visitor levels. Their most successful campaign has promoted the town using a series of advertisements and brochures under the slogan, Cookstown- looking good looking great.

The councils’ main objective is to reaffirm the town’s position as the retail capital of Mid-Ulster. A council report said: “The council continues to place the revitalisation of Cookstown town centre and the wider district as one of its top priorities in the development of the economic and social fabric of the local economy.”

From 2003 the council has funded a shop front improvement and paint scheme which has helped 26 shop owners improve their business façade. The living over the shop scheme run in partnership with the Housing Executive has provided grant aid for shop owners to convert space above shops into residential accommodation.

Council money has been spent on new signage and the main roundabout entering the town has been given a makeover. This has lead to Cookstown being crowned Ireland’s best kept large town 2011.

Chairman of Cookstown Council, Sean Clarke confirmed 79% of VAT registered businesses in the district are in rural areas.

Council money has been targeted at attracting custom to the town centre where the retail sector is the main beneficiary. But, are the rural businesses which form the backbone of the district being neglected?

Sean Clarke says that is not the case: “Rural businesses have the same opportunities as those in the town centre. The onus is not on a council to get involved in economic development and Cooksotwn is one of the leading councils in promoting local businesses.”

He said the council are battling for better broadband access and there “is a big effort to improve the infrastructure in rural areas where it is especially poor”.

Fiona McKeown, the council’s economic development manager said: “Cookstown takes the lead to assist rural businesses. The South West Regional Development division provides grants of up to £50000 to help those who want to diversify their products or invest in new equipment.”

It is encouraging to see the council positively using their influence and resources to help the local economy. UK economic growth is stagnating and profitability is becoming harder for small businesses to sustain: so an all hands to the deck approach is needed.

The enterprise centre currently has 100% occupancy and, surprisingly, new businesses have started in 2011. Ciaran Higgins said: “There is no other work available and perhaps a positive to come out of a recession is the creation of new businesses which will bring new jobs down the line.”

Cookstown district is an industrious part of Northern Ireland with a skilled workforce and entrepreneurial spirit that has helped establish many independent companies.

The goal is to make Cookstown Mid Ulster’s retail capital, but it is vital the council does not forget its rural businesses. As losing manufacturing and construction businesses would have a greater bearing on what the Cookstown district has to offer.