Friday, September 23, 2016

Covering up British Killings



Last week the Assembly resumed following its summer break. Next week it will be the turn of the Dáil. Normally we would be back in Leinster House by now but a major renovation is in progress and this includes a new sound system in the Dáil chamber. Next Tuesday it will be what passes for business as usual in the chamber but most of the rest of the original Leinster House building will remain out of bounds as work continues.

Among the first items I intend to raise will be the disgraceful attitude of the British government toward the Ballymurphy Massacre families. On Monday they met the current British Secretary of State, James Brokenshire. He is the fourth such Minister they have met in recent years. Their hope was that he would agree to release the funds needed for the inquests into the murders of their family members. The 11 dead were all civilians from the Ballymurphy district, including a mother of eight children and the local parish priest. They were killed by the British Paras in August 1971 in the days immediately after the introduction of internment.

It was another fruitless meeting with another British Secretary of State. The families walked out in frustration. John Teggart, whose father was among those killed described the meeting as “terrible”.

It’s 45 years since the Ballymurphy Massacre. The families have been tireless in their efforts to get to the truth. They have had some success along the way but the new inquests that were ordered in 2011 by the Attorney General are key to making more progress.

For this reason, there has been a deliberate policy by the British government and its intelligence agencies to block inquests. Currently there are scores of outstanding inquests into disputed killings by British state forces or unionist death squads acting in collusion with those forces. It is estimated that the average time these families have had to wait for an inquest thus far is close to 23 years.

The reality is that the British state is actively working to prevent the truth from emerging. The Historical Enquries Team (HET), which was established in 2005 to re-examine cases was actively blocked from accessing files held by the PSNI and British Ministry of Defence. It was eventually closed down when a report by the Inspectorate of Constabulary accused the HET of investigating killings by British forces will less vigour that it was using in other cases. The HET lost credibility as a result.

Like the HET the Police Ombudsman’s office has faced hurdles in accessing intelligence and policing documents relating to scores of murders, including those carried out by the infamous Glenanne Gang, which included members of the RUC and UDR. According to a new book, The History Thieves, by Guardian reporter Ian Cobain, the archive of documents that was painstakingly built up by the investigations of John Stevens into collusion were handed back to the PSNI in 2011. There are an estimated 100 tonnes of documents – 100 tonnes!!!!!

Today they sit in Seapark, a high security facility at Carrickfergus. The archive – which the PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton called ‘The Vault’ is, according to Cobain ‘unreachable’. It includes the Stalker and Sampson reports into the RUC’s Shoot-to-kill policy of the 1980s, as well as files on collusion involving the UDR and the Military Reaction Force (MRF).

Cobain, whose book I will review in more detail in another blog, states that ‘The Vault’ is guarded by the ‘Legacy Support Unit’ of the PSNI; “Many of them are former Special Branch detectives, brought out of retirement specifically to perform this task.”

The Guardian reporter quotes Hamilton from a television interview in the course of which the Chief Constable describes the content of the Vault. He says: “If the Vault was to be opened, I know there will be literally millions of documents. I’m not just talking about intelligence documents, I’m talking about plans for covert operations, I’m talking about minutes of meetings. My understanding is that the IRA, the UVF and other players in this didn’t keep notes or minutes of meetings or records of decisions. We did. And I think all of that has left us somewhat exposed.”

Is it any wonder that successive British governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to withhold intelligence information and to obstruct families desperately trying to get to the truth of the death of a loved one?

The Lord Chief Justice for the North Declan Morgan has urged the British government to release the funds. He warned that failure to do this will mean ‘further devastation for grieving families’ and a delay of more decades before all of the outstanding cases might be completed.
All of the North’s political parties want inquest funding released except for the DUP. Their opposition is designed to protect British state agencies and individual members of the RUC, its Special Branch and a range of intelligence agencies from being held accountable for the murder of citizens. The Irish government has a responsibility to assist all of these families. I have raised this with the Taoiseach many times. It is my intention to do so again.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Building Gaeilge for future generations


The Irish language was almost destroyed as a result of centuries of British colonial policy.  As the greatest imperial power in human history successive British governments understood the importance of destroying the language, identity and culture of a people in order to make it easier to control, occupy and exploit them.
Irish history is full of examples of policies intended to deter the use of the Irish language while promoting English. But it is also full of courageous men and women, from all classes and all sections of society who strove to defend the language and music and culture of Ireland. Here in Belfast one of the most important of these was Robert Mac Adam, a Presbyterian industrialist in the 19th century – after whom An Culturlann is named - and his family. His uncle, also Robert, had helped found the Irish Harp Society to provide a means by which blind boys and girls could learn the Harp and thus earn a living. The Society also promoted the study of Irish. Robert travelled widely and collected manuscripts in Irish which he then copied and preserved and which can be seen today in Belfast Central Library and in Queens University.
And there are many others, including those who established the Gaeltacht on the Shaws Road or the Ard Scoil in Divis Street or An Cumann Cluain Ard in the Lower Springfield.
It is no accident that the Irish language witnessed a revival in Belfast and other parts of the north during the years of conflict. While many of us had received some basic teaching in school, especially from the Christian Brothers, and some had gone to the Donegal Gaeltacht in the 1960s, the language was very much a minority interest.
But in the course of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s an estimated 20,000 men and boys, women and girls, from nationalist areas went through Britain’s penal system. In the Cages and H-Blocks of Long Kesh and in Armagh Women’s prison, and in other jails on this island and even in England, political prisoners of an older generation or Irish language speakers from Gaeltacht areas used the time to teach the language to those who didn’t have it.
Along with existing Gaeilgeoirí who loved the language for its own sake and worked valiantly to use and promote it, this new cadre of Irish language speakers joined the efforts to grow the language. Instinctively they wanted their own children to have the opportunity to learn and speak Irish in ways they hadn’t. This saw an increase in the demand for Irish medium education. There is now a thriving, vibrant activist community in this city and other parts of the island. Currently, five thousand children are being taught through Irish medium education in the North. They enter education at the age of 3 and are able to spend their entire pre-primary, primary and post-primary education in Irish medium schools through the medium of the Irish language.
Five years ago this month the then Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín MLA launched the Líofa Initiative - the word Líofa means ‘fluent’. Its objective was to get 1000 people to sign up to Líofa and commit to improving and using Irish. The target was then revised to 20,000 pledges by 2020. It currently stands at 18,257.
On Tuesday I attended the opening of Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll on the Whiterock Road. It is an amazing project. It is part of a pioneering type of bottom-up community and youth work through the medium of Irish which is being spearheaded by Glór na Móna.  Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll is a £400,000 capital development which was jointly funded by An Ciste Infheistíochta Gaeilge, the Department of Culture Arts and Learning under former Minister Caral Ní Chuilin, and Belfast City Council.
I want to commend all of those involved in the project and especially my party colleagues in the Executive, the Assembly and Belfast City Council, including the local Upper Springfield Sinn Féin representatives, who have worked in partnership with the local community to secure the land and funding for this project.
The centre is purpose built and includes new modern facilities for Irish language classes for the local community, parents, as well as youth facilities. It will enable the Irish speaking community in the Upper Springfield to sustain and enhance a whole range of community services and to promote ‘Gaelsaolaíocht – the Gaelic way of life – within the area.
This centre is named after Sean Mackle who played a significant role in sustaining and developing the Irish language. As an architect and community activist he was intimately involved in the life of west Belfast, including the building of the Shaw’s Road Gaeltacht, the founding of Whiterock Enterprises on the Industrial Estate on the Springfield Road, the reconstruction of Bombay Street after the pogroms of August 1969, and the Ballymurphy Community Centre which is now the site of the nearby Fold apartments.
Sean Mackle was a very practical activist. He told me once that we needed to replace names of buildings and project with Irish names and that people would use them. He cited An Cumann Chluain Ard and the old Ard Scoil as examples of this. He said Sinn Féin should have done that with Connolly House and of course he’s right. An Chultúrlann is a good example of Sean’s philosophy. So is Féile an Phobail. An even older example is the name Sinn Féin. It is an honour for Sean and his family to have Gael Ionad Mhic Giollnamed after him. But it is also an honour for the Ionad to be given his name. 
It is of course important to remember that there is still opposition to the language most obviously to the introduction of an Acht na Gaeilge and the resourcing of Irish medium education. I also have very real concerns about the decisions of DUP Education Minister Peter Weir in respect of Irish medium education.
Specifically, there is the failure by the British Government to honour its 2006 commitment in the St. Andrew’s Agreement to an Acht na Gaeilge. It is my view that the public is ahead of those unionist politicians who remain opposed to an Irish Language Act and the implementation of a Language Strategy.
While the struggle to attain full Irish language rights for all citizens has to continue it is a fact that due to the diligence, vision and hard work of Gaeilgeoirí huge progress has been made and that progress has to continue. That is how the Irish language movement has been built and it’s our duty to continue to support this work. As Seán Mackle told us at the opening of Gael Ionad Mhic Gioll; 'This is only the beginning'.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Saying No to the Apple Billions


The British vote to leave the European Union – Brexit - and the ruling by the European Commission that successive Irish governments gave illegal state aid to Apple and that Apple now owes €13 billion, plus interest, in back taxes, will dominate politics for the foreseeable future.
The Apple ruling by the European Commission has forced the Irish government to recall the Dáil three weeks early. But Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, aided and abetted by the Labour party and Fianna Fail, have already decided to appeal the Apple ruling. This means that Wednesday’s Dáil debate and its conclusion was already predetermined. The establishment parties and the Independent Alliance had already rubber stamped the appeal.
In addition no detail was provided on the rationale behind the Commission’s ruling. Nor have Teachtai Dalai seen the ruling.
So much for the claim that the last general election saw the emergence of new politics in the South. Look at the Dáil record just before the summer recess. It was more of the same with Fianna Fail voting with Fine Gael and against Sinn Féin proposals to scrap water charges, provide for rent certainty, provide for banded hours contracts for workers and to deal with the issue of bin charge hikes.
Nevertheless, the issues raised by the Apple deal with successive Irish governments go to the very core of the government’s attitude to citizens; to public services; to tax justice here and internationally; to fairness for our business sector; and to corporate social responsibility.
They are issues on which Sinn Féin has taken a stand consistently, only to be castigated by the political establishment of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour whenever we raised the issue of tax avoidance by large multinational corporations.
Sinn Féin believes firmly in tax fairness - that means that every person and every company pays their fair share of tax. That has been our consistent position. Tax revenues are the means by which public services are funded, by which we pay for social protections and from which infrastructure is developed.
In Sinn Féin’s view the record of successive Irish governments on investing citizens’ taxes to build a fair society is a shamefully disastrous record; but the principle stands - taxes are collected to pay for the betterment of citizens’ lives and their services.
Taxes also need to be fair and equitable. There can’t be one set of rules for some and different rules for others, with small and medium enterprises – the backbone of the Irish economy – weighed down by government tax policies while one very large company pays less than one percent in Corporation Tax.
Nor should we lose sight of the international implications of tax avoidance and evasion. These activities by multi-national companies, supported by governments, is not a victimless crime.
It is a sad fact that every night one billion people go to bed hungry. Three million children die every year from malnutrition and hunger and many more from preventable diseases. Millions more suffer from stunting – a physical condition that limits physical and cognitive development that is caused by chronic malnutrition.
Multinational corporations’ use a multiplicity of tax avoidance schemes to hide their profits so that they can avoid paying their fair share of tax, especially in developing nations.
One recent report by the African Union said that some €60 billion is lost to African countries annually due to this type of activity.
Christian Aid believes that the lives of 350,000 children could be saved each year if corporate tax avoidance was ended.
Save the Children estimates that around $78billion is lost annually in tax avoidance in the 75 countries where most of the world’s child and maternal mortality occurs. 
It’s a huge, global problem. If a government cannot collect tax it cannot develop the essential public services, especially in health, education, housing and water that are necessary.
Sinn Féin is for tax justice. A fair tax system is needed to fund public services. The crises in health and in housing and homelessness within the Irish state have not gone away. The government has failed to get to grips with these important matters.
There is also serious concern about the likely impact of Brexit on the Irish economies, north and south.
However, it is the decision by Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, supported by Fianna Fáil and Labour, to reject the EU Commission ruling on Apple and to turn their back on €13 billion plus interest that is the big story this week.
The Apple Billions, if invested wisely in social infrastructure, in schools and hospitals, in job creation, in the provision of desperately needed acute hospital beds, in supports for the elderly, the young, the disabled, could be life changing.
Last February citizens in the 26 counties voted for change – for new politics. Instead it’s the same old story – the same old politics. It is a mark of the hypocrisy and corruption and duplicity of a political class that hounds citizens who take a stand against water charges, that burdens struggling families with an unjust family home tax and that bowed to the elites of the EU when people’s interests were at stake.

Now they claim they will take a stand against the EU. This has as much credibility as a heap of horse manure. It would almost be comical if it weren’t so serious. These are the parties which invited in the Troika and forced the people to pay the price for the greed of a corrupt banking system. These are the parties that imposed water charges, introduced a family home tax, cut acute hospital beds, and created the crisis in our hospital emergency departments. In the end its all about these conservative parties clinging to political power. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Boxing Clever

The recent rí rá about our boxers at the Olympics in Rio brought back memories to me of my own boxing career. I used to box for a club on the Shankill Road in Belfast. It was around the time Johnny Caldwell won a bronze medal at the 1956 summer Olympics in Australia. I was eight years of age and I still remember his homecoming on the back of a lorry down and around Cyprus Street and the other terraced streets of the Falls. He was one of our sporting heroes. It’s great to see his statue in the Dunville Park.
Freddie Gilroy from Ardoyne was another Belfast fighter who won a bronze medal at the Melbourne Olympics. Jim McCourt later won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. If I remember rightly Jim lived at the bottom of Leeson Street. Or at least he had a little bicycle shop there. In the front room of his house.  I hope I’m right about that.  What is for certain is that Jim was rated as one of the best amateur boxers in the world. My achievements were much more modest.
Dominic Begley was a relation of ours. He was a handy boxer. So at the height of all the pugilistic excitement of the time Dominic took me the short walk up Conway Street to the Shankill Road.  I think the club was in the YMCA but maybe not. I know it was close to The Eagle Supper Saloon. I didn’t last very long. A few months or so.  I perfected the little hissing noise that boxers make when they are throwing or receiving punches and I was very good on the punch bag. The bit I never embraced was when I was put into the ring with some other wee buck who seemed to have a homicidal desire to knock my pan in.  I never quite managed the ability to let my opponents hit me. My instinct was to talk to them. That however seemed to compel rivals to hit me even harder and more often.
Poor Dominic Begley was distracted. So was I. Time and time again he would stop the fight.
‘Gerard,’ he would entreat me, ‘hit him back.  Stop talking to him. He is only seven. You’re nine. Don’t keep backing away. Hit him with a left, then a right and then a left again. And stop making that stupid hissing noise’.
So I did my best. My left, right, left combination became more polished and accomplished. So long as the punch bag didn’t strike back. Dominic persevered. He used to spar with me when no one else would. Eventually he gave up and returned me to my Granny.
‘I’m sorry Aunt Maggie but now that he is wearing glasses I don’t think the boxing will suit him’.
I was glad and Dominic was kind. My Granny seemed to be glad also.
‘Well at least no one will be able to pick on him’. she said.
Little did I know how true that was to be. Almost.
Actually as it turned out no would be able to pick on my older brother Paddy.  Not when Paddy could say ‘Do that again and I’ll get our Gerry for you’.
I remember the day it started. A big boy from across our street hit him one day when we were playing a game of Rounders. Our Paddy was small for his age and he started crying. I challenged his assailant. He told me to mouth away off. Before either of us knew it I hit him. Not just once. No.
All my months sparring with Dominic Begley paid off. I hit the bigger lad with a left then a right and as his knees buckled and his nose spouted blood I finished him off with another left. He was amazed. So was I. And I never hissed once.
My next street fight was also our Paddy’s fault. One of the Dunnes stole his kitten. I was sent out to get it back. Again my winning combination had the desired effect. The cat napper collapsed on Glenalina Road as I caught him with a left, then a right and another left.
Then I made a mistake. I picked up the kitten, turned my back and started to walk back to where our Paddy waited for his pet. That’s when I got hit on the back of the head with a half brick. An Ardoyne upper cut.
Later when I got out of hospital I was distraught to find out that our Paddy gave his kitten away. For fourteen marleys, a kali sucker and two gub stoppers. To the brick thrower who did the Judas on me. Michael Conlan’s outburst was muted compared to my outrage.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ode to a Dog


Long suffering readers of this column will know I am a dog lover. That’s the way it is. For all my many faults that may well be one of my redeeming qualities. 
I was thinking the other day that it may be possible to measure your life by the number of dogs you have known. In my case that would mean that I am starting to get old. 
My first dog was called Darkie. He was a large black and tan canine that stayed with me and my Granny Adams when my Uncles Frank and Seán emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. He was a great dog. I always think of him being big but size is relative. I was only seven or eight at the time so big then mightn’t be so big now. 
It’s like the schoolyard at St Finian’s. When I returned there as an adult it was tiny. But back in the day when Brother Christopher, Mr Nolan, Johnny Blake and Brother Aloysius did their best to educate us the yard was enormous to wee Falls Road primary school students.  
 So too with Darkie. In my memory he is about the size of a Wolfhound. Or at least as big as a Labrador. When our Abercorn Street North  gang used to  foray into Getty Street or into the Dunville Park Darkie was always a great ally against the wee bucks from Getty Street. If he hadn’t been with us I’m sure they would have scalped a few of us or certainly inflicted Chinese water torture on any of us they chanced to capture. Darkie prevented that.  
He also never had a dog licence. I have a distinct memory of my Uncle Paddy telling me how he had trained Darkie to walk well behind us if there were any peelers about. Paddy explained to me how he taught the dog to let on it wasn’t with us in case we were challenged about its licence. Or the lack of it. I always thought Darkie was very smart to be able to do that.  So was Uncle Paddy. 
I don’t recall how Darkie died.  Or even what age he might have been. My Granny Adams  went to Canada for a while and I moved back to the Murph so I suppose Darkie might have moved in with the Begley’s. They lived in Abercorn Street North as well. Funny how important the North bit of that address was to older residents. If any of us said we were from Abercorn Street we usually got corrected. 
‘It’s Abercorn Street NORTH,’ we were told. 
  Funny I’ve never heard of Abercorn Street South or East or West though I suppose there may well be such places. 
So that was Darkie. He is still alive in my memory – that place of wonderment and imagination. He is the first of a long line of four legged  friends. Rory, Mickey, Shane. Cara 1 and Cara 2. Cindy. Barney. Cocker. Oscar. Nuada, Snowie. Fionn. 
I hope I haven’t left anyone out.  All but the last three are in doggie heaven. 
Nuada is up in the mountains living the good life. She was too energetic for our back yard. A real hyper hound, and handsome too. 
Snowie nipped one of the little people in my life.  Dogs do that sometimes. Especially wee dogs. She was banished to the MacManus’ household – the dog not the child - where she now lives a life of ease as befits a madadh of her disposition.
Fionn is lying at my feet now. Snoring gently. He is a  gentleman. Biddable. Calm. Patient. A great buddy to the little people in my life and an intrepid  fetcher of a well pucked sliothar. Or even a mis-pucked one.  
He seems to have life sussed out.  He is a walking, sleeping, eating four legged bundle of good natured doggyness.    
He also loves me. I love him too. And all his ancestors. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

FLUICH! FLUICH! FLUICH!


I don’t mind the rain. I never have. Away back in the day when I was on the run it was easier to wander around West Belfast on a wet day when there weren’t a lot of people about and those who ventured out weren’t paying much heed to anything except the need to get back indoors again as soon as possible.

In the rain you could become invisible. A cap, a parka jacket or a duffle coat hood kept out the drizzle and provided much needed cover from passing British army jeeps and other trespassers. So me and the rain are good friends.

When I was a school boy it wasn’t so easy. Not when your shoes were letting in. My shoes used to let in a lot. It was entirely my own fault. There were no brakes on my bike. So in order to stop or slow down the trick was to wedge your foot in between the front fork of the bike and against the front tire. This had a debilitating effect on the sole of the brogues.

My right shoe had a groove which eventually became porous. My Ma was going to kill me when she found out. That was after Joe Magee had the bright idea of making insoles from oil cloth. But that didn’t stop the socks from getting soaked. That’s the socks which survived. My granny used to darn the lesser damaged ones.

Anyway once it was discovered how our shoes were getting destroyed it wasn’t long before we were forbidden from using our feet as brakes. That was when Joe Magee came up with a wooden wedge as a sort of a brake which worked sometimes. That wonderful invention meant that we only had to use our feet in the event of an emergency. The reason our bikes had no brakes was because me and Joe Magee used to make our own bikes from old frames, bits and pieces of rejected cycle parts and wayward wheels rescued from the dump between Westrock and Beechmount.

For a while we used to collect lemonade bottles up at the Dundrod road races to finance our perambulationary adventures. In those days you got a few pence for returning empty bottles. That was when John Surtees was king of the road. All this was great in the summer when it didn’t seem to rain as much as it does these days. So porous footwear wasn’t such a big problem. Especially with the arrival of plastic sandals. But come the Winter and the rainy season the walk back from school was a bit of a squelch.

Walking back from school was a frequent occurrence. The bus fare usually subsided a bag of broken biscuits from Stinker Greenwoods shop. So it was the young dog for the hard road. Skipping the puddles on route and avoiding the overflows along the way.

In time when I graduated to serious hiking and camping. Water boots became de rigeur. And walking boots plastered with Dubbin. Tents were heavy water proofed canvass. Ground sheets were an optional extra. Joe Magee took himself off sailing in drier warmer climes and ended up in Australia.

I stayed. I like a soft day.

Then along came modern wet gear. Gore Tex. Fleeces. Layers. Window wipers on my specs. All this makes it easier.
My uncle Francie, back home from Canada for my mother’s funeral in 1992, put it well.’

‘ Ireland would be a great country to live in if we put a roof on it.’

My Granny used to say the snow in Canada was dry snow. I couldn’t figure it out when she complained about Irish snow being wet.

A friend of mine did a lot of time in prison in France. When he returned home I asked him what was the difference between prison in Ireland and prison in France. He reflected for a long minute before replying.

‘Nobody talked about the weather.’

Au contraire. We Irish seem to be obsessed by the weather. Little wonder.

I’m sitting here drying out, scribbling these few words. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Another friend of mine, a German woman, said one day.’ The Irish weather! A few days of sunshine and you forgive a month of rain.’

That’s what I hope for. A chance to forgive the rain. Before the Summer gives way to the Autumn.

Friday, August 12, 2016

An all-Ireland suicide strategy is essential


There is not a single family across this island that has not been affected by the challenge of mental health issues. It is now accepted that one in seven adults will experience mental health issues in any given year.
Allied to this is the issue of suicide. It is now believed that the real figures for suicide across the island of Ireland are as high as 1,000 people annually. Under-reporting of suicide has always been a problem. Often deaths resulting from road accidents and drowning are impossible to classify.
The reality is that all sections and all generations of our society are affected, from the very young to the very old, and in rural and urban areas.  Self harming is also a huge issue in Irish society today. Thousands are admitted to hospitals every year as a result of self-harm which in many cases go unreported.
The impact on families and communities is huge. Most are left wondering, Why? They are left asking what they could have done to prevent the death of a loved one. The emotional trauma is enormous. In the aftermath of a suicide, especially of a young person, the potential of others also taking their own lives is high. I still remember visiting the wake homes of four young victims from the Upper Springfield area in west Belfast who had all died from suicide within days of each other.
There is no single or easy explanation for someone deciding to take their life. In my experience the reasons can be many – mental health problems, loneliness, alcohol and substance misuse, an absence of hope for the future, can all contribute to suicide.
There is also a clear and direct correlation between deprivation and suicide. In every statistical analysis that I have read areas of high unemployment and deprivation suffer greater levels of suicide. At the same time suicide is no respecter of class or age or gender.
Last month the investigative on-line news website The Detail reported that there were 318 suicides registered in the North in 2015. This was, it said, the highest annual death rate in 45 years and it means that on average 6 people every day are taking their own lives in the North each year. 93 of those who died by suicide lived within the Belfast Health Trust area. Deprived areas in the six counties suffered from suicide rates that are three times higher than the least deprived areas.
Alarmingly The Detail reported that there had been a total of 7,697 suicides (5,666 were males) from the beginning of 1970 to the end of 2015. This is more than twice the numbers of citizens killed during the decades of war.
12 years ago I was the MP for west Belfast which had, along with north Belfast the highest suicide rates in the north. In October 2004 I lead a delegation of Sinn Fein and community activists to meet with the British Direct Rule Minister Angela Smith. Families bereaved by suicide were leaders in this endeavour. Amongst the proposals we tabled was the creation of a regional suicide prevention strategy and an all-Ireland strategy.
A series of meetings followed with the Department of Health, the Children's Commissioner in the north, and with the North and West Health & Social Services Trust. Protests were also held and on one occasion I wrote to Mary Harney, the Dublin Minister for Health, requesting a meeting to discuss a suicide prevention strategy for the island. I’m still waiting a response to that letter.
The intensive lobby in the North succeeded in 2006 in securing the establishment of the ‘Protect Life’ suicide prevention strategy and action plan. Since then over £50 million has been spent on suicide prevention. Undoubtedly many lives have been saved but the recent statistics are evidence that much more needs to be done.
Suicide is also a major issue in the South. In June the Mental Health Commission published its annual report. The State's mental health policy, A Vision for Change, has been in place since 2006 and the Mental Health Commission undertook a strategic review as part of developing a new strategic plan for 2016-2018.
The commission's report illustrates how much remains to be done. This includes a need for independent monitoring of the Vision for Change policy which is now ten years old.
There are also significant issues around the lack of funding. The current level of funding for mental health is still less than the 8.24% target based on the 2005 figures envisaged in A Vision for Change. The staffing levels are about 75% of the Vision for Change recommended number.
According to the Mental Health Commission's report, there is a serious deficiency in the development and provision of recovery oriented mental health services. This concept, which is about aiding a person's recovery rather than managing the illness, is crucial. The report also states that the reason for this is the combined effect of poor manpower planning, lack of change in professional training schemes, cuts in public expenditure, delays in recruitment and a shortage of appropriately trained staff.
The most recent statistics available for suicide in the South claim say that 459 persons - 368 males and 91 females - took their own lives in 2014.

In the North a new 'Protect Life 2' strategy is expected to be issued for consultation next month with final publication of the strategy being due in 2017. To be successful it needs to reflect the experience of those bereaved families and community and voluntary groups campaigning on suicide. It also needs to be properly resourced.
12 years after the commencement of the campaign for a suicide prevention strategy for the North and ten years after A Vision for Change, the need for an all-island suicide prevention strategy is even greater than ever. Such a strategy needs to be properly funded and coordinated and bring together all of the statutory agencies, including health and education. Voluntary and community groups cannot provide this. Governments must do so.
Useful Numbers
Lifeline is the crisis response helpline service in the North for people who are experiencing distress or despair. It can be contacted confidentially on 0808 808 8000.
The Samaritans can be contacted by telephone on 116 123 or emailjo@samaritans.org
Suicide Down to Zero can be contacted on suicidedowntozero0000@gmail.com
Pieta House Freecall 1800 247 247. Or if you can simply text HELP to 51444.
Public Initiative For The Prevention Of Suicide And Self- Harm (PIPS) is a support service for people who need intervention or for those who have survived suicide loss. It can be contacted at T 086 193 3074: W www.pipsproject.com

Save Our Sons and Daughters (Sosad) can be contacted at 041 984 8754 and w www.sosadireland.ie

The H.S.E. Suicide Prevention Helpline Free Phone 1800 222 282




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