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Gerry and Lish at Parliament Buildings

It was a wonderful night. Gerry and Lish came back from the dead as did a few of the old Stormont MPs to tell the story of the fateful Belfast Celtic – Linfield game on Dec 27th, 1948 that changed local football forever.

The legendary Jimmy Jones was there as were many others from the worlds’ of football, theatre, and politics.

Chris Lyttle MLA, Danny Kennedy MLA and I got our hands (probably for the first and last time) on the old Irish Cup which has the names of all the current big clubs as well as Derry City and of course Belfast Celtic on it.

The Irish Times ran a great preview of the event and it was all recorded I am told for BBC TV.

Next week I will welcome an amendment to the Justice Bill which will, for the first time, make sectarian chanting illegal at sporting grounds in our region. It will be a huge step forward from the old Stormont Parliament’s debate on the Windsor Park tragedy in early 1949. Then some MPs were accused of leading a chorus of sectarian chanting at Winsdor Park before the trouble broke out.

That great old cup

It is incumbent on us all to support those in sport, politics, and civil society who are working so hard to eradicate sectarianism from the sport. The IFA’s Football for All is one such initiative.

Huge thanks are due to the writer of the play Padraig Coyle, the Belfast Celtic Society, the IFA and Linfield Football Club who have all seen the great opportunity to build reconciliation through a better understanding of the past.

SDLP table budget amendment to cap student fees and protect frontline health services

The SDLP will today seek to amend the Dup-SF budget to protect frontline health services, ensure there is no increase in student fees and create greater opportunities for job creation in tourism.

Therefore today we will attempt to change the first set of budget proposals to go before the Assembly.

Our amendment, which is technical in nature, calls for a reduction in corporate overheads such as travel and consultants across various departments. We also want the removal of funding from the Sinn Féin/DUP slush fund designed to benefit their chosen groups.

In addition, the SDLP has highlighted the areas of the budget where we believe more spending is required.

These include health to protect frontline services, education and tourism. The SDLP want increased funding for employment and learning in an effort to prevent a rise in student fees.

The SDLP oppose an increase in student fees and have led the campaign against them. Today is an opportunity for Sinn Fein, the DUP, the UUP and the Alliance Party to stand up against increase in student fees and vote to reallocate resources so working families and students can be assured that fees will not increase in the years ahead.


That this Assembly approves that a sum, not exceeding £6,654,663,000, be granted out of the Consolidated Fund on account for or towards defraying the charges for Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2012 and that resources, not exceeding £7,336,432,000, be authorized, on account, for use by Northern Ireland Departments, the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, the Assembly Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints, the Food Standards Agency, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland for the year ending 31 March 2012 as summarised for each Department or other public body in Columns 4 and 6 of Table 1 in the Vote on Account 2011-12 document that was laid before the Assembly on 7 February 2011.

Minister of Finance and Personnel

SDLP amendment

Insert at end; subject to a reduction in requests for resources for the following departments:
£0.7 million DCAL
£0.5 million DFP

£0.7 million DOE
£7.0 million DOJ
£3.8 million DRD

£9.4 million OFMDFM

and requests the Minister of Finance and Personnel to consider the allocation of the resultant reductions to the Department of Education, for the promotion of community relations, to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for tourism development, to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, for frontline health and social care services, to the Department for Employment and Learning, for student finance and to the Department for Social Development, for tackling poverty; and further calls on the Minister to consider the identification of further financial resources for these purposes prior to the publication of the Budget Bill Main Estimates 2011-12.

Margaret Ritchie

Declan O’Loan

Unionism refuses to outlaw sectarian chanting

Unionism coalesced yesterday on the floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly to block an amendment to the Justice Bill which would have outlawed sectarian chanting at sporting games in this region.

Only a week after a small minority of local fans brought themselves and their shirt into disrepute it seems bizarre that anyone would have a problem with this proposal.

What was even more bizarre is that the Justice Committee had been debating the need for this measure for some seven months and the proposed amendment, introduced by the Minister for Justice, had the unanimous support of the Justice Committee which is made up of member of the DUP, UUP, SF and SDLP.

Many will be scratching their heads that Basil McCrea led the opposition to the proposed amendment on the floor of the house. He will have a fair amount of apologising to do to Reg Empey and David McNarry who represent his party on the committee following suggestions he made on yesterday’s Nolan Show that the committee were not up to the job!

I have been in politics long enough to see a lurch to the right and a return to the trenches coming. Political unionism reverted to type yesterday. Faced with the option of doing the right thing and setting a real example or falling back on old fears and prejudices, they chose the latter. The bizarre u-turn will also alarm many who are concerned about the state of the UUP under Tom Elliot’s leadership.

The Justice Committee meets this afternoon. I will challenge the committee to stand by its decision to ban sectarian chanting in sport. There is still an opportunity for unionism to catch up with society, the sporting organisations and the many people across our region who support this move.

77 days to improve politics in our region

The Assembly and local government elections take place eleven weeks, or 77 days, from today.

Between now and polling day I hope the many thousands of working families who are feeling the pinch of the recession and the impact of government cutbacks will begin to demand better politics from all of us seeking a mandate on May 5th.

The past four years have been marked by carve up and carve out of government. Over the next eleven weeks, I hope we get to debate the need for more than just peace process politics but before that, we need to settle a better budget before March 14th.

On Tuesday in winding on the budget debate I placed the following remarks on the record of the Assembly.

“The SDLP believes that, if this Budget were passed, we would have no plan for rebalancing the economy of our region. We could be looking at up to 9,000 public service job losses, and we would face a pay freeze for the 7,400 civil servants who earn below the average industrial wage that Sinn Féin MLAs take. The SDLP also believes that thousands more people would face benefit cuts by 2012 and that there would be the potential for hospital closures. We know that. At the same time, the prospect of new medicines and new medical facilities, such as the cancer centre in Altnagelvin, would not be available for patients, and there would be no robust strategy for job creation. There would also be less independent scrutiny of government, because of what this Budget would do to the Assembly, the Audit Office and the other key scrutiny bodies. There would be a massive drop in building, particularly social housing building, with consequential job losses. Over 100 schools would go without the repairs that they so desperately need, and there would be the potential to introduce student fees of £5,750. Such student fees would say to working families that they could not afford to send their children to be educated, they could not afford what a previous generation was able to afford, and they could not afford to become fully signed-up members of society, because we are going to stop them doing that.

For all those reasons, I ask Sinn Féin to adopt the long-standing SDLP motto that there is a better way. If the DUP is serious about living up to its motto of keeping Northern Ireland moving forward, I ask it to seriously revisit this Budget and to return to the House before the end of the process with something that is built on the twin pillars of social justice and economic development. What they bring should mean that we can all face the people, proud of what this place can deliver and of what devolution can mean. It should also mean that we can look the most marginalised in our society in the eye and say that, above all, this Assembly stands up for them.”

Budget could put another 9000 on dole – NI needs a better way

The forthcoming election must be about making Northern Ireland work.

The budget that Sinn Fein and the DUP are proposing will put the North on the dole. Over 9000 public service jobs will go with many more lost in the private sector. Over 100 school builds will not proceed and hospital waiting lists will get longer if we don’t start taking devolved government seriously and start making decisions that benefit the many rather then the few.

7400 low paid civil servants who get paid less then the average industrial wage will have their pay frozen and tens of thousands of students could face fees of up to £5750.

We had seventy years of bad government in this region. It gave us political policing and gerrymandering. The last thing we need now is slush fund politics and more cronyism.

The next Assembly needs more balance. A stronger SDLP team will bring solutions to water and education and a new politics to Stormont.

We want to create a people’s water company to make the necessary investments in out water and sewage infrastructure. A mutual company which puts customers first.

In government we will work hard to break the stalemate in education. We won’t let outdated ideology get in the way of what is best for our children. Guided by international best practice we have made proposals which will ensure no child ever has to sit a transfer test and eleven whilst also guaranteeing that educational excellence remains at the heart of all our schools.

Through practical cooperation across Ireland we can save millions for both jurisdictions. Money that can be invested in schools, hospitals and our transport infrastructure. That’s why we want a better budget for the North. One which includes new revenue from local sources to plug the gap left by Tory Cuts. A strong SDLP would challenge Sinn Fein and the DUP’s surrender policy to the UK Treasury.

Northern Ireland can remain divided and forever a failure or as a region we can make the positive decision to work together in the common interest.

My nationalism is in no way diluted by a commitment to making the North work, nor should anyone else’s unionism. Those of us who are serious about Irish Unity need to explore honestly what that means. You can’t unite Ireland by continuing to divide the North. That’s why the time has come for a generation of nationalist politicians to step forward and make our region work. I want to be part of that movement.