Last month I addressed the Alliance Party conference on the issues with Poverty in our City, what we have been doing and what still needs to be done to tackle it.
Tag: belfast city council
Weekly Update – 14/03/21
There are three things I’ve been thinking about almost constantly this week – violence against women, how violence against women is reported and how we bring much needed conversations out of our echo chambers.
The tragic and chilling case of Sarah Everard is the stuff of nightmares. How one human being can inflict such pain on another is incomprehensible. And as many have pointed out, there’s an added element of fear in that Sarah did everything right. Every woman knows what it feels like to be walking home alone, the scenarios that play out in your head and the tactics you hope you’ll use if the worst situation arises. We know what it’s like to have lewd things said to us, to be groped in bars, to feel watched and to feel powerless. And we’re tired of being told to alter our behaviour in order to prevent this.
I’ve started to see stories shared of other victims – particularly in relation to women of colour – ones that I’d never read before. Class and race undeniably impact how gender based violence is reported, and we need to acknowledge this, and we need to address it. But it’s not just the conversations that play out in the media – I’ve been reflecting on the conversations we have among ourselves. How most of these are had with other women, and how most of the ones had with men are spent agreeing that of course it’s not all men, but arguing that it’s enough men. And then I started thinking about Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in schools and how much better equipped we would all be if we had honest, scientifically accurate, age-appropriate discussions from a young age. My party leader Naomi Long met with the Minister of Education on this, as did the Children’s Commissioner. Youth groups, women’s groups, concerned parents (just to name a few) have all raised how damaging the lack of standardised RSE is, and yet there has been no progress. We need proper RSE to keep young people safe – not just now, but in the future. There is the demand, the evidence, and the legal obligation for change – so why is nothing happening? We need to ramp up the public pressure if we’re ever going to see change.
But that’s not the only area where change is needed. Men who recognise that gender based violence is real and a problem need to stand with us, to talk to other men about attitudes and behaviour, and to call it out when they see it. We need better and consistent reporting on these issues – where your skin colour does not determine how many newspaper inches you get – and we need to start talking about these issues early.
I’m sending so much love to everyone hurting at the moment, especially those who have lost someone. I can’t imagine the pain they must feel. The world can be a very dark place and this week has been a heavy one. The outpouring of outrage, compassion and solidarity reminds me of the good which exists, and it gives me hope. I hope so much that this is a turning point.
WHAT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS WEEK
Alliance celebrated Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish Language Week) with a beginners Irish class where I learnt my first Irish phrases. I attended a meeting with Senior Belfast Council officers over governance issues and had an Alliance strategy meeting regarding our group’s 100 goal manifesto for this term. Lots of casework (mainly planning queries!) this week -remember if any if Council’s services are not working for you, or there’s an issue in your area, please get in touch.
FAVOURITE THING ON THE INTERNET THIS WEEK
I’ve genuinely watched this about 200 times.
As ever if you’re having any issues you can email me at email@example.com
Keep looking after yourself & each other.
Friday Update- 19/02/21
This week started with Boris Johnson suggesting we build a tunnel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Connectivity is important, but as my colleague Cllr Stephen Donnelly pointed out if we’re talking about new infrastructure we could do with some better roads in Northern Ireland first please. Plus it’s getting very tiring that every time there’s an issue with Brexit Boris Johnson (to borrow a particularly graphic phrase from Naomi Long) “dangles this umbilical chord”.
On Tuesday Paul Givan tabled a Private Members Bill in the Assembly to amend abortion law with the intention to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities. As it was the first stage of the bill there was no debate. I’ve been campaigning on reproductive rights for a decade and I know that those on both sides of the argument hold sincere and deeply held views, but for me given every pregnancy – and every woman – is different, the ultimate decision has to be made by the woman and her doctor. BBC has a good timeline on abortion law in Northern Ireland, which you can read here.
If you didn’t get the chance to watch the Spotlight Documentary on Covid and Hardship, please do. Thirty minutes of difficult viewing – but so important we all keep talking about the reality of poverty, and what is being done to address it. The destitution, the stigma, the lack of hope – it’s heartbreaking, and it’s also completely unacceptable. I have so much admiration for the people who shared their story, and so angry they had to. You can watch it on i-player here.
There have been definite signs of hope this week too however: from the NASA rover landing on Mars to the slightly smaller scale Lagan Gateway Bridge going in today (see it here). But for me the most joyful news was that a constituent who hasn’t seen her father for 51 weeks will be visiting him in his Care Home today.
WHAT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS WEEK
This week I had Licensing and Planning Committee meetings, several meetings with the Alliance Party Belfast Council Group over the report into how Council handled the Bobby Storey Funeral (you can read our press release here) and a great meeting with the Alliance Women’s Network. We set the Network up to address women’s policy issues and increase female representation, but it’s also become a wonderful support network. I also had a brilliant meeting on an issue I’m very passionate about, but can’t tell you about… yet! Otherwise been busy with the usual casework issues, and as ever any issues or services not working for you, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
FAVOURITE THING ON THE INTERNET
It was a tough call between all the GenZ Vs Millenial content… but in the end this one won (you can see the thread here -thank you to my friend Claire for sharing)
Hope you all have a lovely weekend & I’ll be back with another update next Friday,
So many people I know have just stopped watching the news. And who can blame them? The last 12 months have been hard on everyone and I think most of us just can’t deal with any more bad news. Saying that, as the vaccines roll out and the days get longer and brighter – hope is within reach.
In normal times (were there ever normal times?!) I would have been out knocking on doors to update residents on what I’ve been working on and getting feedback on local issues. Obviously with Covid that’s not possible, but I’m still working and still keen to hear your thoughts and concerns, so I’m starting a weekly update on this blog. In it I’ll update you on what I’ve been working on, my thoughts on what’s been happening in local politics and share something that’s brightened my week.
So where to start?
I was so excited to see the Black and Ethnic Minority Women’s Campaign for a bigger say in public life launch this week. I’ve been working with officers at Belfast City Council to look at how we tackle racism and while there are plans for training for young BAME leaders, it’s great to see these incredible women organising to make our political systems more representative. Watch their interview with Mark Simpson here and be inspired.
If Mid and East Antrim Council wasn’t already the most bizarre political body in Northern Ireland, the the latest developments must have secured its title. I genuinely feel so bad for my colleagues who are on that Council. Read about it here if you haven’t already.
Naomi Long’s legislation on stalking reached it’s second stage in the assembly – we’re so far behind the rest of the UK on this that it’s great to see it making progress. More about it here.
This week is Sexual Health Week, and an opportunity for me to raise (for the millionth time) how shocking it is that we don’t have standardised Relationship & Sex Education in Northern Ireland – here’s a piece I wrote on why we need it for Slugger O’Toole many many years ago.
WHAT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON
A few people have raised issues about Wedderburn Playing Fields (in Finaghy) and how to make them more user friendly: I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get them lit up and a path can be put in – work on this is ongoing. Lots of planning queries, issues with graffiti in Belfast, questions about Covid restrictions and chasing up support funding for businesses impacted by Covid. No Committee meetings for me this week, but I attended the NI Planning Conference which was very useful, I was particularly inspired by some of the work Scotland is doing in relation to youth engagement around the town planning process and keen to see what more we can be doing.
FAVOURITE THING ON THE INTERNET
Lawyer cat-man. I mean if this didn’t make your week I don’t know what will.
As ever, any issues please get in touch – my email address is email@example.com
Have a great weekend & take care,
Friday was my last official day of maternity leave. I had brought Cian with me on a site visit, and as he sat in his pram staring balefully at us all, I wondered how the last ten joyous, sleep-deprived months had passed so quickly. The week before he was born I went on leave from my day job, but Council work never stops (I actually recall responding to casework emails from the labour ward). Since Cian Luca came into this world he has been with me almost constantly. He attended his first committee meeting at 4 weeks old, I breastfed him in the Council Chamber at 7 weeks, at 8 weeks he had sat in the BBC Talkback studio (while we discussed the trolling I had received for taking him to the chamber the previous week). He attended site visits and constituency meetings, he came to briefings and events – he even came along to a meeting in Parliament Buildings when the Assembly was about to get back up and running (Naomi Long asked Cian what he thought about her becoming Justice Minister… he thought there was no one better for the job) – and as smug as this now sounds, it all felt so wonderfully easy. I was praised for going back to work so soon, I was lambasted for going back to work so soon – but to be honest none of it felt like work, it just felt like I had the very best of both worlds.
As he got older I started to pump – I knew it was better for Cian to stay at home with his dad in a cosier (and politician-free) environment; and so off I went to my late night committee meetings, where I started to wonder if I really did have the best of both worlds. I tried not to dwell on the guilty sadness I felt each time I left him – as an elected representative I’m not entitled to maternity leave, besides I comforted myself with the belief that the sooner we got used to being apart, then the easier it would be in the long run.
And then came Covid. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make you look at your life and whether it’s discovering how resilient you are, or that you love someone more or less than you realised, or even the profound revelation that you *can* bake edible banana bread – it seems through this fearful and uncertain time, we’re all learning something about ourselves. In gaining a maternity leave I never thought I would have, I reflected on the necessity to spend time well. I knew that if I was going to continue sacrificing being with my child in order to fulfill my duties as a politician, I could only justify it if I was doing it for the right reasons.
I got involved in politics because I had a genuine desire to see a progressive and inclusive Northern Ireland, and to be a part of that change. It could be easy to pin your self-worth on a title, to become consumed with keeping your seat or seduced by the perks of office (I’m not ashamed to admit I am very partial to the stamp with my name on it), and the only way I could keep my involvement meaningful, was if it didn’t mean everything. I wanted to expand my skill-set and develop other areas of expertise, and so I enrolled on a postgraduate course, I applied for a new day job – and here I am on the eve of a new beginning.
While I still feel guilty at the number of commitments I have, I’m told guilt goes with the territory. And while I’m just a bit devastated this glorious bubble is about to pop, I’m excited for the endless possibilities that lie ahead. But mainly I’m grateful – grateful I had much longer with my baby than most new parents do, and that the space with him has allowed me to really reflect not just on how I use my time, but on how I am, for the both of us.
Northern Ireland’s problem with racism
Northern Ireland has a problem with racism. I witnessed enough of it when I worked for Northern Ireland’s only ever ethnic minority MLA. The amount of abuse Anna Lo endured was staggering and we regularly dealt with constituents who had suffered similar treatment. This isn’t just anecdotal – there are figures to back it up: the results from the 2017 Life and Times Survey show high levels of intolerance towards people from minority ethnic communities.
More than half of people surveyed would not willingly accept a Muslim (52%) or an Irish Traveller (56%) if they became a relative through marriage. Almost half (47%) of people asked would not willingly accept a Muslim as a close friend; and a quarter (25%) of people would not willingly accept someone from an ethnic minority as a colleague at work.
Anna always used to say racism and sectarianism are two sides of the same coin. In a society which has in part been molded by segregation and suspicion, the continued distrust of outsiders is not just symptomatic of that which remains unresolved – it is also part of a worrying narrative in global politics.
In a city where PSNI figures show that racially-motivated crimes now exceed those connected to sectarianism, where seeing Confederate flags is not unusual (not to mention the previous Swastikas and KKK banner), where a functioning government is not in place to make much needed legislative changes, we know more needs to be done. It’s why any elected representative who puts out a leaflet which advocates “local homes for local people” is not just deeply disappointing, it’s actually dangerous. Politicians need to wake up to the racial prejudice that exists, not fuel or exploit it for political gain.
The Belfast Agenda states that “We are ambitious and inclusive. We have come together to set stretching goals that will create a better quality of life for all. We want sustainable success for the city and we want to make sure this success reaches everyone who lives here.” Electing local Councillors who are committed to this agenda, to making the city better for *everyone* who lives here, really shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Call-ins & carve-ups
When it looks like funding is being allocated on a ‘one for me, one for you’ basis, that’s a problem. It’s not always easy or popular to challenge these decisions, particularly if the area you represent is set to benefit – but it’s always the right thing to do. Ensuring openness and transparency should be an absolute baseline for any elected representative. So this week’s post is on the latest carve-up in City Hall – and for anyone interested – an explanation of the call-in process.
The ‘call-in’ exists so if you suspect a bad/shady decision has been taken at a Committee meeting Councillors can request that the decision be revisited. To do this you fill in a decision register (which we’re all emailed straight after the meetings), explaining clearly why you feel it should be called in – then you’ll need 8 other Councillors to sign it. This then goes to the Chief Executive and the Council will seek legal opinion. The legal opinion is circulated regardless of whether the solicitor or barrister think the call-in has merit, and full council will make a decision at the next meeting.
The email with the decision register is usually one of those emails you delete straight away. But not last week. Because last week interim funding for festivals was on the agenda once again – and in our opinion the decision that was taken was not a good one.
There is a pot of £320,000 to support festivals and events across the city for the next financial year and it was up to the City Growth & Regeneration Committee to allocate it. Last month Sinn Fein had tried to push through a £200,000 funding boost to Féile an Phobail (on top of funding they already get) which we voted against, not because of Féile – but because of process. Council hadn’t had a proper discussion and there hadn’t been an explanation as to why such a substantial sum of money should be allocated. So despite Sinn Fein’s protestations, it was voted that this go back to Committee for further discussion following briefings on the issue.
When it returned this month a last-minute proposal was put on the table from the DUP; they wanted to give rest of the money – £40,000 each – to Orangefest, the East Side Arts Festival and the CS Lewis Festival. The Greater Shankill Winter Festival was allocated £45,000. Again there was no particular reason why they should be allocated this sum of money. The attempt to just drive it through, last minute, was typically brazen. And highlighted how the festival funding process is a complete mess. All these festivals may do brilliant work, but this doesn’t negate the fact that there are many other arts organisations in our city in need of support too – and they don’t get a look in.
So back to the call-in – we had managed to get two other Councillors to sign our ‘call-in’ over the DUP and Sinn Féin financial carve-up, but we’ve since been forced to withdraw it after the Councillors, an independent and one UUP, decided to remove their names. With Sinn Fein and DUP (who may not be able to get a government together but when it comes to £££ in Council are the political party equivalent of #relationshipgoals) supporting the allocation of funding in this way it will almost definitely pass at full Council next week.
The next Council elections are in May, and as ever transparency will be top of the Alliance agenda. A long overdue Cultural Strategy (currently in development) will be brought to the new Council in April 2020 which should hopefully ensure a fair, open and transparent way of funding, which is vital if we’re to grow our arts sector. We’re also hopeful the new Council will see a bigger Alliance team returned, so we can at least call-in decisions when others lack the courage to.
p.s This week I am loving the Derry Girls & Amnesty NI collab-protest against our archaic abortion laws https://www.stylist.co.uk/visible-women/derry-girls-abortion-protest-northern-ireland/254198
Also loving the High Low Podcast (they’re super posh but give great book recommendations and talk about feminism/ best salt and vinegar crisps / MPs who instagram like they’re influencers etc) & Jack Blanchard’s Politico email which is one of the simplest ways to keep up with the chaos that is Brexit.
Not loving Sinn Fein’s manipulation of Colum Eastwood’s Fianna Fail’s Ard Fheis speech. https://twitter.com/sinnfeinireland/status/1100826310899834885