Friday Update – 26/02/21

It’s Friday and the sun is shining, both very welcome after this week in politics.

I started my week by listening to the Today In Focus miniseries podcast on the Freshwater Five. In 2010 five Fishermen from the Isle of Wight who were found guilty of conspiracy to import £52 million worth of cocaine and given lengthy jail terms. Ahead of a hearing in the court of appeal this week where new evidence will be presented that could exonerate the men – the five episodes look in detail at the case and the impact this has had on the men and their families. It’s one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a long time – which you can listen to here.

Meanwhile – Alliance has been lobbying on EU residents right to remain – we’re very worried that people for whom NI is home face becoming undocumented in 4 months – and we are pushing for the June deadline to be scrapped and for automatic status to be granted. More detail here.

My party colleagues on Mid and East Antrim Council (where the most bizarre things – even for NI politics – happen) called a special meeting to request an independent investigation into the recent removal of staff from Larne Port. The DUP, UUP and TUV voted against this. A depressing day for those who value openness and transparency, but proud of my colleagues for standing up for what is right. You can read more here.

The Department of Health has been dragging their feet in not implementing abortion services in Northern Ireland and on Tuesday we learnt the Human Rights Commission has been granted leave by the High Court to take a judicial review against the Secretary of State for NI and the Dept of Health for NI. It is anticipated that the case will be heard in May/June 2021. The fact that this has to happen – when the law is settled – is shameful.

Alliance Deputy Leader Stephen Farry MP has been highlighting that the way to ease tensions around the Protocol lies with the UK Government, and how they align or otherwise with EU on SPS rules via a Veterinary Agreement. He wrote a great piece on it here.

Arlene Foster and some DUP colleagues met the Loyalist Communities Council this week – a legal body which incorporates illegal paramilitary groups. Appropriately there was uproar around this. As someone who has been working with people who have been forced out of their homes and had their lives ruined by paramilitaries, it’s outrageous that any politician – let alone the First Minister legitimises them by seeking their opinion.

Sammy Wilson likened the Health Minister to a poodle. But Sammy Wilson being attention seeking isn’t really news.

I went on Talkback on Friday to discuss regulating graphic abortion images with Peter Tatchell – you can listen to the interview about 30mins in here.

WHAT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON

This week I had an assignment due in (I forgot how much I hated being a student) but still managed to keep on top of my casework and progress some of the issues I’m working on. I had a very productive meeting on building community infrastructure in South Belfast, as well as discussions around social prescribing and what more we can do to support people experiencing loneliness and isolation. Usual casework issues – bins, planning and Covid regulations queries. And as ever, if you have any issues please get in touch: kate.nicholl@belfastcity.gov.uk

FAVOURITE THING ON THE INTERNET

Pádraig Belton’s letter to his son on his second birthday. So filled with love.

Hope everyone has a lovely weekend,

Kate

Friday Update- 19/02/21

Happy Friday!

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: kate.nicholl@belfastcity.gov.uk

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,

Kate

The trouble with flags

When paramilitary organisations put up flags it is not about culture. It is a deliberate attempt to demarcate territory and to intimidate, and the law should protect against this. For the third year in a row UVF flags have gone up in Cantrell Close – appalling anywhere at the best of times, but all the more sinister because this is a *shared* housing development. Anyone who defends these flags is defending violent and threatening behaviour.

Whilst there is an obvious difference between paramilitary flags and ‘national flags’ – the latter is too frequently used for similar purposes. For the constituents I’ve been working with this summer, the key issue is not the flags themselves, it’s the anonymity. They know that in July flags will go up –but the fact that they’re erected late at night, by unknown groups of men – unsure for how long they’ll remain – is for many people deeply unsettling.

The police have told me they will only remove flags “if there are substantial risks to public safety” – how they establish this is a mystery to me. In the meantime nothing is done about the intimidation and authorities seemingly rely on those opposed just keeping quiet. If you feel unsafe or vulnerable you just have to deal with it.

Before the Assembly collapsed my colleague Paula Bradshaw was developing legislation – we need this, because until we have strict regulation and genuine leadership on the matter (which btw does not involve politicians knocking on doors and asking people if they mind the UVF flags outside their house…) then we’ll continue to revisit this every. single. year.

Everyone should be free to celebrate their culture, but ensuring this is done in a peaceful, transparent & time-bound way really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Photo source: Irish News 

Some thoughts on the Alliance surge

I got involved with Alliance in December 2012 as an act of solidarity. The Party was under attack, not over the removal of a flag from City Hall, but over an election in East Belfast – and I was angry. Naomi Long had the audacity to win her Westminster seat from Peter Robinson in 2010, the retribution for which would last the best part of a decade. Most people would have crumbled, but Naomi Long is not most people.

In my seven years as an Alliance activist I have become accustomed to election campaigns, and to losing them.

The first election defeat I was involved in was the 2013 Mid Ulster by-election. I remember an SDLP activist (kindly) saying to me that he liked how we walked into that count like we stood a chance. We tallied furiously and cheered the loudest for our much respected candidate Eric Bullick when he increased our vote by 0.3%.

In 2014 my then boss Anna Lo was our EU candidate. Her personal views on the constitutional question had dominated headlines and many said that would be the end for Alliance, but in truth I think it served as a reminder that Alliance is genuinely a cross-community party. In the end Anna achieved our highest vote and we were elated, though at 7.1% of the vote we knew we still had a way to go to break the desired 10% barrier.

The next year – the 2015 Westminster election – was the one that really stung. After a particularly nasty campaign, Naomi lost her seat to the DUP’s Gavin Robinson (though she increased her vote by 4,000). His bitter and aggressive “5 Long years” speech stood out in stark contrast to the dignity and grace with which Naomi has become known for. And it didn’t go unnoticed.

In the 2016 Assembly election we kept our 8 MLAs, as was the case in the 2017 election (despite the Assembly having been reduced from 108 to 90 MLAs) – only this time Alliance seats in North Belfast and South Down were now within reach. It was then I realised that maybe things were changing.

With no functioning Assembly since 2017 and the cliff edge of Brexit looming; people are tired of scandal, self-interest, and political point scoring. For too long divisive, negative politics has dominated – and there doesn’t seem to be much to lose. So when a person like Naomi comes along – someone who is genuine, who speaks sense, and most importantly will work with anyone for the greater good (and is just that bit scrappy); it’s not difficult to see the appeal.

While Brexit and the absence of an Assembly undeniably contributed to our recent triumphs, the Alliance surge is not something that happened overnight. While Naomi is extremely likable and engaging (even her most dedicated trolls wished her well when she signed off social media to receive medical treatment), behind her is a pretty impressive team. Deputy Leader Stephen Farry – who is an actual genius (I have seen him engage in a conversation, analyse a policy document and play tetras all at the same time) – has been a reliable and trusted voice on Brexit. And because evidence-based policy is very much our thing, it means even if you don’t agree with an Alliance position, there’s integrity behind the decision making. The MLAs, their staff, and the small central team are dedicated and hard working – which are key ingredients to any success.

Mostly I believe that our strength lies in the fact that at the core of Alliance is a sense of inclusivity – which carries more campaign miles than fear mongering ever can. And while these elections are ones that will take a while to come down to earth from, we know we cannot be complacent. We face many serious challenges as a society, but for the first time in a long time it seems that those working towards the greater good were rewarded.

And there is endless hope in that.

Image may contain: 7 people, including John Blair, people smiling

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.

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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