Friday, July 3, 2015

NAMA at centre of new scandal


NAMA is once again in the news. This time over the sale of its northern loan portfolio. Regular readers of this blog will know that the Fianna Fáil Government established the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) in 2009 as part of its response to the economic crisis. Acting as a ‘bad bank’ NAMA took over all of the loans – “good” and “bad” – of all property borrowers arising from those banks bailed out by the Irish taxpayer.

As a consequence of the decisions of successive Irish government’s bad banking debt was then turned into public debt with citizens taking on the financial burden of debts amounting to over €64 billion. NAMA was intended to recoup the losses to the Irish taxpayer.

Sinn Féin TDs, particularly my good self, Mary Lou MacDonald, Pearse Doherty and Peadar Toibin have consistently raised concerns about NAMA. At the beginning of June the Irish government was forced into establishing a Commission of Investigation into the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) over concerns about the write down of debt in the selling off of public assets held by that bank.

In the Dáil debate I said: It’s also important to state that the concerns around IBRC are not confined to that bank. Similar concerns surround the operation of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).

NAMA also has been handling billions of euro in debts arising from the economic crash, mainly from the collapse of the construction industry. NAMA has been ordered to wind up faster than its 2020 remit demands.

Sinn Féin is concerned that this may result in a failure to get full value for the taxpayer and that NAMA is undertaking a firesale of assets to meet an arbitrary deadline. So, the distinct impression that citizens are left with after weeks of exposure to the IBRC scandal is that a culture of secrecy exists at the heart of this Government.”

On Thursday independent TD Mick Wallace raised similar and valid concerns around NAMA and the sale of its northern loan portfolio to a US vulture capitalist firm called Cerberus Capital Management back in April 2014.

This sale by NAMA included loans owned by debtors – property developers and investors - from the North who had borrowed from Anglo-Irish bank, AIB and Bank of Ireland.  Their loans were secured by assets held across the island of Ireland, Britain and in parts of Europe. 

The value of these loans had a par value of £4.5 billion and the whole purpose of NAMA selling this loan portfolio was to recoup the losses to the Irish taxpayer who shamefully, have been forced to bail out the banks who lent the money in the first place. But of course that is not what happened.

What we now know did happen was that NAMA sold the £4.5 billion of loans to Cerberus - it is alleged for only £1.5 billion. 

Before the sale even took place Sinn Féin Finance Spokesperson Pearse Doherty questioned the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan in the Dáil on whether or not NAMA had jumped too soon and received the best value for the portfolio on behalf of the taxpayer.

Pearse asked, "Fire sales at the cusp of property price and economic recovery ring every alarm bell there is.”

Asking further he quizzed the Minister on,  “…the number of bidders; the date the bidding process commenced; if he instructed NAMA to dispose of their entire North of Ireland portfolio; the criteria used to establish the successful bidder; and if he will disclose the ultimate price paid for the portfolio.”

In response Michael Noonan said that, “the sale of the loans relating to debtors in the North was conducted on NAMAs behalf by the corporate finance advisor Lazard. The sales process commenced in January 2014 and the decision to dispose of the portfolio was taken by NAMA in response to an improvement in market conditions. As part of the process, Lazard identified and engaged with those parties which, in its expert view, had the capacity to engage in a transaction of this scale. NAMA recently announced its intention to proceed with the sale of the portfolio, subject to contract, to affiliates of Cerberus Capital Management, L.P. The process is, accordingly, on-going and it would be inappropriate to comment any further on the matter given that the transaction has not yet concluded.”

Needless to say the sale went ahead.  Cerberus got a bargain and the people got taken for fools by the Government and the golden-circle, yet again.

On the day the sale went through NAMA Chairman, Frank Daly, and NAMA CEO, Brendan McDonagh issued a public statement which said;

“This transaction represents a significant achievement for NAMA.   It is NAMA’s biggest single transaction to date and we are satisfied that the sales process will deliver the best possible result for the Irish taxpayer. NAMA management of this portfolio has been measured and supportive taking into consideration the particular circumstances in the Northern Ireland economy. We are assured by Cerberus that they will adopt a similar approach.”

I’m not sure everyone would agree with that assessment.

One year on we are being told of serious concerns being experienced by local businesses and entrepreneurs in the north, many of whom were in fact “good” borrowers, who agreed their repayments with NAMA before it sold off the northern portfolio, and who have yet to miss a repayment.

Sinn Féin warned of this at the time and Cerberus promised to work with local business and gave assurances, “to act in the best interests of Northern Ireland and, like Nama, would not seek quick fixes by embarking on a “fire sale” that would drive down property prices.”

However, despite such promises Cerberus certainly do appear to be seeking quick fixes and embarking on a “fire sale” to secure the par value of the loans of £4.5 billion.  This is to the detriment of the local economy, particularly in these increasingly challenging times as the Tory party inflict deep cuts to the local economy.  We must avoid at all costs any further assault or negative downward impact on small business, employers and the wider economy.

Cerberus cannot come to Ireland as profiteers and not be scrutinised or held to account.  We can assure them that is what will happen.

Further allegations raised by Deputy Mick Wallace TD in the Dáil which suggest a cabal involved in insider trading and political cronyism, must be fully investigated by the Assembly, PSNI, DPP and other relevant authorities. 

I welcome the statement from the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who has called for an intensive investigation into these matters. 

I also welcome the decision by Daithi McKay, the Sinn Féin Chair of the Assembly Finance Committee, who has said that he intends to convene an emergency sitting of the committee to consider its response to the NAMA allegations. Cerberus was previously invited by the Assembly Committee to give evidence but didn’t. Daithi intends calling them again. He also plans to call NAMA officials and the Law Firm mentioned in the current controversy to speak to the committee, and I understand that he intends inviting Mick Wallace to appear before the committee also.

The disclosures around this latest controversy involving NAMA underlines the need for a Commission of Investigation to be established into the management and decisions of NAMA by the Irish government.

As a first step, and in light of the revelations and allegations over the last 24 hours it is imperative that the Minister of Finance Michael Noonan comes into the Dáil on Tuesday and makes a full statement on the handling of this sale by NAMA and states whether he is assured that the sale was value for money and not open to abuse.

 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The gravest crisis - institutions of Good Friday Agreement hangs by a thread


The future of the political structures created by the Good Friday Agreement hangs by a thread. In the 17 years since it was achieved the Agreement has faced many challenges but the determination of the British Tory government, and of the unionist parties, to implement swingeing austerity cuts represents the gravest threat yet to the political institutions.

Last week the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle agreed to give conditional support to the Budget nos 2 Bill that Arlene Foster has introduced into the Assembly. It is a technical piece of legislation that gives effect to the budget which Sinn Féin and the other parties agreed during the Stormont House negotiations at Christmas time. Sinn Féin’s support for the Stormont House Agreement was based on full protection for all successful claims for social security benefits under the control of the Executive for the next six years.

In February the DUP defaulted on this part of the agreement and provided only for current recipients.

The Budget nos 2 bill has been described by some as a ‘fantasy’ budget. But failure last week to pass the budget bill would likely have resulted in an immediate crisis in the political institutions. The Sinn Féin decision provided a space in which solutions might still be found. However the ability of the parties to do this has been severely undermined by four years of consistent Tory cuts that have targeted public services and the most vulnerable in society. In total one and a half billion pounds has been slashed form the Executive’s budget in addition to cuts to welfare spending at Westminster.

This austerity agenda has caused real hardship for many families and impacted badly on the provision of public services.

Throughout this time Sinn Féin’s priorities have been to ensure the efficient functioning of the power sharing institutions; create jobs and reduce unemployment; protect the most vulnerable in society, and to bring forward working budgets that ensure the delivery of frontline services.

Sinn Féin deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has also played a central role in the Executive’s successful job creation strategy that has seen unemployment falling. We sought to strengthen these objectives through the negotiations at Stormont House, by working to create a coalition against Tory cuts within the Executive and wider society, and by setting out an alternative to austerity.

Part of this was agreeing to the budget for 2015/2016. We agreed this budget in good faith in the context of it being a finalised budget with no further cuts, and in anticipation of the delivery of all aspects of the Stormont House Agreement.

There has been limited progress on the Stormont House Agreement. The DUP is still refusing to honour the agreement on social security protection safeguards and the newly elected British government intends to impose further cuts of £25 billion to public spending. A cut of £38 million from the 2015/2016 budget in the six-counties has already been determined.

London has so far failed to detail the wider impact of these cuts in the north but the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has told DFM Martin McGuinness that ‘they will be eye watering.’

Sinn Féin’s position has been consistent and clear.  We are totally opposed to the Tory cuts agenda.  We are opposed to it in principle and in practice.  Tory cuts and austerity are incompatible with democratic values.  Sinn Féin cannot and will not be agents of cuts imposed on citizens in the north at the behest of millionaires in London.

 Others who may be prepared to perform this role should be mindful that these cuts will affect unionist and loyalist citizens as well as everyone else.

To date the most vulnerable have been cushioned from the worst of  the Tory cuts to the block grant, however there are also cuts in spending by government departments that have been announced but have yet been given full effect by the voluntary and statutory agencies and bodies that have seen their funding reduced.

Republicans want the political institutions to work and deliver for citizens. Despite the inevitable problems associated with a unique and experimental power sharing system there can be no doubt that the Executive and Assembly and all-Ireland institutions have worked much better for citizens than the years of direct rule by unaccountable British Ministers and the  decades of one party control by the Ulster Unionist Party.

Consequently our preference is for the current institutions to stay in place. But it cannot be at any price.

Sinn Féin does not expect conservative governments in Dublin or London to change their political or ideological positions. They are both wedded to the austerity agenda.

However, we do expect both governments to accept the special circumstances of the north, as a society coming out of conflict, and the need for an economic dividend to the necessary process of peace building and change.  We also demand that they fully implement the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements.

Specifically, the two governments should implement those elements of the Stormont House Agreement that deal with the past and legacy issues. Victims and their families should not be prevented from achieving truth and closure because of the failure to reach agreement on other issues. The two governments can and should proceed with establishing the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU); improving Legacy inquests and establish the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR).

In the meantime Sinn Féin Ministers will continue to maintain frontline services as far as possible. And strive to protect vulnerable citizens.

At this eleventh hour I would urge civic society, the business, voluntary and community sector, the churches and trade union movement to play a full and positive role in defending citizens against austerity and in defending public services and democratic political institutions. The British Tories need to be persuaded to agree a realistic funding for the Executive which delivers for citizens. Without a working budget this is not tenable.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lá breithe shona duit Fr. Des


Where to begin? Fr. Des will be 90 on July 8th. It’s hard to believe. He has lived a full life. A good life. And in the course of his years of service Fr. Des  has helped thousands of people. During the dark years of war and violence he lived and worked in Ballymurphy and Springhill and was often in the thick of it standing up for citizens against the British Army and RUC, comforting the bereaved, and helping frightened people.

It feels like I have known him all my life. He has been a crucial part of the greater Ballymurphy family from the time he was first moved to St. John’s parish in 1966. Ballymurphy was one of those post second world war estates that was built without thought or planning. No schools, no shops, no play facilities for children, no local employment and no church. Corpus Christie was built to serve the Ballymurphy and Springhill communities but someone neglected to build a priests house.

Fr. Des and Fr. Hugh Mullan came up with the radical idea of getting a council house within the Ballymurphy estate. Most priests lived separately from the working class communities who made up the bulk of their parishioners. Theirs was a novel proposal. Unsurprisingly the idea was not well received and Fr. Mullan found himself in Springfield Park – a small estate of semi-detached houses, just across the Springfield Road from Ballymurphy.

On August 9th 1971 Fr. Mullan was one of 11 local citizens who died in the Ballymurphy Massacre – victims of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment. Fr. Mullan had gone to the aid of neighbour Bobby Clarke who had been shot in the back. Fr. Mullan was waving a white babygrow when he too was shot in the back. Eye witnesses said Father Mullan could be heard praying as he lay bleeding to death.

Fr. Des eventually secured a small four bedroomed terrace council house – 123 Springhill Avenue – and took up residency in January 1972. From that point on it was an ‘open house’ – Springhill Community House - a place of refuge and learning and spirituality. Fr. Des made everyone welcome. His home was also one of the few places in that huge sprawling area with a working phone. Consequently each day harassed parents, mainly mothers, were there trying to get news of those arrested in British Army swoops; or to phone the local dole office about the non-arrival of social benefits.

Father Des teamed up with Frank Cahill and other local activists. They founded the Rock furniture group and other co-ops, started a Peoples’ Theatre and developed outreach with working class unionist communities.

The Church hierarchy looked increasingly with disapproval on the work of Fr. Des. More and more he found himself at odds with the political stance of the hierarchy. In 1975 he resigned from the Church but not from the priesthood and continued with his work.

During this time I approached Fr. Des and Fr Alec Reid to see if they were prepared to act as facilitators to help bring an end to the occasional inter republican conflicts that broke out in Belfast. They agreed and helped put in place a process of arbitration and mediation that undoubtedly saved lives. They also started a dialogue with loyalist paramilitaries and both priests were very supportive of the republican prisoners, especially during the hunger strikes. Springhill Community House was also very active in the campaign to end the strip searching of the women prisoners in Armagh Women’s prison.

Along with Noelle Ryan and others Fr. Des successfully turned Springhill Community House, into the largest academic outreach centre in west Belfast. It provided a meeting place for people to discuss and study whatever was of interest to them.  Its objective was to promote social inclusion and self-help and to assist the most disadvantaged and prepare them for further education and training. By 1980, there were over 200 enrolments. Many of them were young people expelled from school or adults who had left school early to find work.

In 1982 Springhill Community House extended its programmes into Conway Mill with the opening of the Education floor. The old Mill, which had been lying derelict for years, was part of an innovative self-help project founded by the late Tom Cahill. Tom proposed that Conway Mill should be turned into a community enterprise project providing education, self-help and local employment opportunities.

The first management committee included many well-known local republican and community activists, including Frank Cahill, Liam Burke, Alfie Hannaway, Jimmy Drumm, Jean McStravick, Sean O’ Neill, Tom Cahill, Colm Bradley and Fr. Des Wilson

 
To facilitate the provision of education one floor of one of the two main buildings was given over to education. It was run under the auspices of Springhill Community House and for much of the time with the indefatigable Else Best present. The floor was cleared, classrooms constructed, toilets installed and a theatre and stage built. Halla na Saoirse (Freedom Hall) was frequently used for the staging of plays written by local people.

 

A crèche was established and staffed by ACE (Action for Community Employment) workers and teachers and tutors were provided by the Workers Educational Association (W.E.A.) and the Ulster Peoples College.

 
Regrettably Conway Mill also became a target for the British state. Under the then British Secretary of State Douglas Hurd a policy of political vetting against community groups with any alleged republican connection was introduced. The first to be targeted was the Conway Mill crèche. The British decision, which was supported by the SDLP, caused outrage.

 
There were also threats and attacks by unionist paramilitaries. However Dr. Des and his colleagues refused to be coerced or intimidated and continued to fundraise and to develop the Mill. Today it is a fine building providing employment and education for the people of west Belfast and it is a fitting tribute to the courage and vision of Fr. Des and his friends.

 
Through the 70s, the 80s, the 90s and into the 21st century Springhill Community House, and Fr. Des have been at the heart of many of the positive initiatives to emerge from west Belfast. As well as creating jobs and providing education Springhill Community House was deeply involved in justice, policing and human rights projects. They organised some of the first surveys and inquiries into living conditions, education provision and unemployment in West Belfast.

 
With his friend Fr. Joe McVeigh, Fr. Des also established the Community for Social Justice. Its role was to highlight the real nature of violence in Ireland and to challenge the leaders of the Church.

 
Fr. Des is also a prolific and insightful writer. As well as penning a weekly column in the Andersonstown News – which touches upon every issue imaginable – he has also written several books – An End to Silence; Democracy Denied; and The Way I See It. He is also a pamphleteer – Diary of 30 years – 1972; The Chaplin’s Affair – 1976; The Demonstration – 1982; Against Violence in Ireland – 1983; The Laughing Christian – 1999.

 
Fr. Des is a leader, a man of great courage and vision, a good neighbour, an honest down to earth decent human being. I am pleased to be able to call him friend. I will leave the last word to him. Writing about moving into Ballymurphy in 1972 Fr. Des later wrote:

 

I found the people very sophisticated; they don't get the credit for it. I used to make a joke: If suddenly the Pope came out on the balcony of St. Peter's and announced that he was going to get married, it's the people of Ballymurphy and Springhill who would take a very rational view; whereas a lot of middle-class people would react as if the world was falling apart - and a lot of ecclesiastical people too. But the people here would consider it very rationally, as they do so many things - because they're so close to the reality of life. A lot of the so called "problems" which the Church talks about are false problems; they're manufactured problems about marriage, etc. They've created these problems - like crossword puzzles. The problems that people in Ballymurphy face are real, not theoretical. They're not whether you stand up or sit down at the Creed. It's whether you live!

Fr. Des has lived well and he has more living to do. Go raibh maith agat. Lá briethe shona duit.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Collusion - Britain’s shameful record on human rights


The British establishment knows something about hypocrisy and brass-necked politics. Especially when it comes to Ireland. This week was a case in point. The British media extensively covered the celebration of the signing 800 years ago by the English King John in 1215 of the Magna Carta.

The long history of colonisation between England and Ireland left no room for celebration on this island. While they were busy taking from the Irish the English Barons – fed up with the abusive behaviour of King John - but more importantly wanting a greater share of the economic spoils and of political power – demanded that John agree to a charter that would limit the power of the King.

The Charter was essentially the Barons telling John that he was not above the law and to back off from excessive taxes. However, within a couple of months the English King retracted it all and secured the support of the Pope, in a papal bull, in renouncing this ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people.’

Standing at the site of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede British Prime Minister David Cameron waxed lyrical about human rights and how people around the world ‘see how the great charter shaped the world for the best part of a millennium helping to promote arguments for justice and freedom…’  

He then signalled his government’s intention again to repeal the Human Rights Act and to end Britain’s involvement with the European Convention on Human Rights. These are two key foundation stones for the Good Friday Agreement. They are essential elements of that historic peace treaty and of subsequent agreements, especially in respect of policing and justice.

The European Convention on Human Rights has been an indispensable tool in holding successive British governments to some sort of account for their human rights violations in the north during the years of conflict. And for that reason, as well as because he wants to pander to the anti-EU element of his party, Cameron wants to tear it up.

His performance at the Magna Carta celebrations was, as the Director of Liberty described it as a ‘masterclass in bare-faced cheek.’ Allan Hogwarth of Amnesty International put it nicely. He said: ‘David Cameron’s use of the anniversary of the Magna Carta to justify scrapping the Human Rights Act will have those 13th century Barons spinning in their highly ornate, lead lined coffins.’

But that’s only part of the story.

Another and more deadly aspect of British policy in Ireland was put under the spotlight in an RTE documentary on Monday night - How Police & soldiers helped terrorists kill & maim in Northern Ireland: Collusion - An Investigation. It brought into sharp focus the role of the British state, at its highest political level, in planning, ordering and sanctioning state murder on a massive scale. 
Much of what it contained was not new. The BBC spotlight programme of a few weeks ago touched on the same issue. And for citizens in the north collusion has been part of the political agenda for decades.
It took 30 years for RTE to make this programme. So, for many citizens in the south it was their first real opportunity to see the reality of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland. While David Cameron and others in that establishment were speaking of the great record of Britain in defending human rights the truth of that lie was being laid bare on RTE. The policy of state sponsored collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads was part and parcel of Britain’s political and military strategy in the six counties.
In her essential work on this issue – Lethal Allies – Anne Cadwallader of the Pat Finucane Centre concluded that it was an ‘inescapable fact, established beyond doubt by these events’ that ‘successive British governments and their law enforcement agencies entered into a collusive counter-insurgency campaign with loyalist paramilitaries. It was thoroughly unethical – and it failed dismally. It was also illegal under international law.’
Regrettably successive Irish government’s failed to uphold the rights of the hundreds of Irish citizens who were killed or the thousands more who were injured, imprisoned or tortured, as a consequence of British policy. The most obvious example of this is the Dublin Monaghan bombs which killed 33 citizens. But there are also the deaths of Councillor Eddie Fullerton, of Jack Rooney and Hugh Watters who were killed in Dundalk and of Seamus Ludlow and others.
The SDLP, Irish governments and others used to regularly ridicule claims of collusion. No longer. Nor can it be dismissed as a ‘few bad apples’. It was pervasive and strategic and policy driven by the British government from 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet, to its military and intelligence agencies.
The emotional and psychological cost of collusion is still felt by families and survivors across Ireland, including the families of Sinn Féin members and family members who were killed.
I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach twice this week in the Dáil. I urged him to meet with Relatives for Justice.
The Taoiseach should be a champion of this agreement and particularly those elements which are within the authority of the governments.  

As a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements he has a responsibility to press the British government to move ahead with the implementation of those elements of the Stormont House Agreement that deal with the past and legacy issues. They have the authority to advance many of the protocols dealing with the past. 

These include: the establishment of the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU); putting in place processes that are victim centred; improving Legacy inquests to ensure that they are conducted to comply with ECHR Article 2 requirements; ensuring that both governments provide full disclosure to the HIU; and establish the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR). The Taoiseach should press Mr. Cameron to implement all other elements of the Stormont House Agreement that are the responsibility of the two governments.  

In this way the bereaved families and victims will have access to mechanisms that can help to bring truth and justice and closure.  

Finally, it is worth recalling some of the bald statistics of collusion:
·        The Glennane Gang which was responsible for up 150 murders, including the Dublin Monaghan bombings, was made of agents and serving members of the RUC and UDR.

·        The Stevens Inquiry found that of 210 Loyalist it identified, 207 were agents for elements of the British security services.

·        Stevens recommended the arrest and prosecution of 24 Special Branch officers and British Army handlers of loyalist killers for their involvement in scores of murders. The British government refused to arrest or prosecute those responsible.

·        DaSilva found that 85% of all Loyalist Intelligence came from the British agencies.

·        British intelligence agencies armed loyalists, provided intelligence, and safe passage, and covered up their activities.

·        The former head of RUC Special Branch Raymond White recalls how he raised the issue of the use of agents and collusion with former British PM Thatcher only for his concerns to be dismissed.  He was essentially told: “carry on – just don’t get caught”.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Biblical crisis


With the good weather in the Mediterranean the numbers of refugees seeking to cross to Europe has dramatically increased. Last weekend an estimated 7000 men, women and children were rescued from the Sea off the coast of Libya. They were among the 100,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived illegally in Europe since the start of the year.  That’s close to the entire population of West Belfast. The Irish Naval Service described the number of migrants being rescued as "biblical" in proportion.
In the same period almost 2000 refugees have drowned. In one terrifying event an estimated 900 refugees drowned when a boat capsized. Many of those victims died because the traffickers locked refugees, including women and children, in the ship’s hold.

Since then hundreds more have drowned. Almost every day graphic and distressing images emerge of boat loads of refugees. They are fleeing wars and civil wars in Syria and Libya, Somalia and Nigeria and many of the other conflicts taking place in that region of the world.  Like our ancestors fleeing the Great Hunger in Coffin Ships they are also fleeing famine and poverty in sub-saharan Africa.
Too often help for the refugees on these overcrowded boats comes too late. Boats sink and refugees drown. The statistics of death and tragedy in the Mediterranean are distressing.

The most recent United Nations report states that:

·        In one week in April 10,000 Migrants were rescued.

·        218,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean in 2014

·        3,500 Migrants died attempting the crossing last year  

In May Pope Francis appealed to the international community to prevent drownings in the Mediterranean. He described those who died taking the perilous journey as: “Men and women like us who seek a better life. Hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of wars. They were looking for happiness".
Of the many conflicts in that part of the world the most disastrous at this time is in Syria. It is an inconceivable human tragedy. As many as 300,000 people have been killed in a war that is now in its fifth year. The number of refugees is unprecedented. About 3 million Syrians have fled their country, and an additional 6.5 million are internally displaced.

International organizations do what they can, but they have limited resources and conditions in the conflict areas are dangerous. Conditions are appalling. Children are especially vulnerable.
Last year the number of asylum applicants to EU nations rose by 44 percent with the total reaching six hundred and twenty six thousand. Eurostat, the EU agency responsible for statistics, has reported that one hundred and ninety one thousand more people applied for asylum in European countries in 2014 than in the previous year.

The number of Syrian asylum applicants rose to one over hundred thousand, more than twice the previous year. Germany, Italy, Hungary, Sweden and France have all reported significant increases in asylum requests.
In May the Foreign Ministers of the EU met and produced a ten point plan. EU leaders met several days later and approved this plan. Since then it has begun to fall apart under the strains of its own inadequacy.

The EU leaders proposed that the EU states would resettle 5,000 immigrants. When set against the numbers trying to get into Europe this is a derisory figure. They also came up with the idea of offering migrants return travel packages. Is it reasonable to expect that refugees would accept a travel scheme that sends them back to the war, to poverty or famine they are trying to escape from?

They then announced a quota scheme for EU member states. The proposal was that numbers of refugees would be allocated to each state based on economic and social factors. The British Tory government and the French and Spanish governments have now opposed the quota system.
So too have the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. In remarks three weeks President Hollande insisted that all purely economic migrants would be deported. He warned that: “People who come because they think that Europe is a prosperous continent, even when they are not hired by companies ... must be escorted back.”

Unless effective and compassionate immigration rules are introduced, and substantial aid is provided to the home nations, asylum seekers will increasingly be forced to turn to the human traffickers. They will also be forced to remain in Libya which is in a state of chaos.
Recently, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, addressed the UN Security Council seeking support for military action against the people traffickers. It cannot progress without the support of Libya. However, with two rival governments in that country there is no evidence that this agreement is imminent.

Amnesty International has warned that military action could leave migrants trapped in Libya in desperate conditions. A recent Amnesty report entitled "Libya is full of cruelty" has given graphic accounts of the plight of refugees in Libya where abduction, and torture and rape are widespread.

If the EU organises military action against the traffickers but leaves refugees trapped in Libya how will that ease the humanitarian crisis?

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are there to help and protect refugees. According to their provisions, refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals. Nor should a refugee be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom.
This must be a fundamental right accorded to those who might be stopped entering the EU. But clearly much more is needed.

The colonial record and the more recent policies of some European countries toward north Africa and the Middle East have contributed enormously to the difficulties in this region.

Tackling the issue of migrant refugees means taking a stand against those from either the extreme right or left, be they fundamentalists, bigots, racists or homophobes, who seek to impose by violence and intimidation their values on others.
The European Union needs to do more to help the economic migrants and the political refugees. It needs to pro-actively participate in initiatives to end the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere in the region.

It especially means Europe pushing harder for a resolution of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. For many this conflict lies at the heart of much of what is happening in that region today.

 

 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The IBRC scandal won’t go away


It was once famously said that a week is a long time in politics. Make that a day. For weeks the government parties in Dublin have been rejecting any suggestion that there should be a Commission of Investigation established to look into the activities of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation.

Yesterday, in the face of an increasing storm of popular and political protest the government did a sharp u-turn and announced the very Commission of Investigation it has been vigorously and vociferously opposing. Then last night an email appeared in my inbox from the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, outlining draft Terms of Reference for the Commission and asking for Sinn Féin’s opinion of them.

It’s all a far cry from the government’s Programme for Government four years ago in which the two government parties claimed that a “democratic revolution” had taken place and that they were committed to openness and transparency.

The events of the last few days and weeks have exposed the shallowness of those claims and the disdain in which the government holds the Dáil and Seanad.

The roots of this current crisis lie in the nationalisation of Anglo-Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society and the creation from them of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation. Its function was to sell off assets and reduce the bank debt that the state was taking on as a result of the economic collapse. Among the assets sold was a company called Siteserv. The controversial circumstances around this have been at the centre of a very public debate which for a time last week bordered on a constitutional crisis.

Siteserv had borrowed €150 million from Anglo Irish Bank. IBRC then sold Siteserv to Millington, a company owned by businessman Denis O Brien. It paid €45.42 million. Tax payers lost €105 million and shareholders, including chief executives at the company, received €4.96 million for a busted company. Subsequently Siteserv won the contract for the imposition of water meters.  

In 2012 Pearse Doherty and I submitted a range of Parliamentary Questions about IBRC. The responses from government were less than fulsome. More recently Independent TD Catherine Murphy spent a year asking a series of Freedom of Information questions. She faced evasion and prevarication. When pressed on RTE about why Catherine Murphy had to ask 19 Parliamentary Questions before she receved a comprehensive reply the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said that the questions were “adequately answered” and “you don’t produce full files when one specific question is asked.”

As a result of Teachta Murphy’s efforts we now know that O'Brien’s company was not the highest bidder for Siteserv.

We also know that the Minister for Finance was briefed by Department of Finance officials about their concerns about this deal and other transactions involving IBRC. For example, €64 million was written off for Blue Ocean Associates before being purchased by a consortium, also involving, Denis O'Brien. The government ignored these concerns.

I raised this issue in the Dáil with the Taoiseach and demanded that the government establish an independent Commission of Investigation to look into all these matters. The government refused and chose instead to appoint the special liquidators, who had helped close IBRC down, to review all transactions at IBRC over €10 million. The liquidators are from KPMG auditors which oversaw the sale of Siteserv.

Sinn Féin and others on the opposition were justifiably angry at an ‘insider’ review process that was less than transparent and involved the same individuals and company involved in the original sale of Siteserv.

RTE then acquired information on Denis O Brien’s dealings with IBRC. O’Brien, reputedly Ireland’s richest businessman, went to the High Court to prevent the information from being broadcast. On May 18th he successfully secured an injunction against RTE, or any other Irish media, carrying any of the detail of his private financial dealings with IBRC. The media was effectively gagged.

Last Thursday, May 28th, Catherine Murphy introduced a Private Members Bill into the Dáil. It was supported by 45 TDs including Sinn Féin. The purpose of the Comptroller and General Auditor (Amendment) Bill was to try and ensure that IBRC would be subject to independent scrutiny by that agency and not by the ‘insiders’ who had been appointed by the Minister for Finance and who were part of the original sale by IBRC of Siteserv and other companies. Ms Murphy told the Dáil: “It is a web of connections and conflicts that requires outside eyes to unravel.”

The Independent TD also used parliamentary privilege to read into the record of the Dáil her understanding of the details of Mr. O’Brien’s arrangements with IBRC which were the subject of the court injunction. These were published in the Dáil record several hours later and are available online at www.oireachtas.ie

The media interpreted the court injunction as a bar on the carrying by it of any report of Catherine Murphy’s remarks. Mr. O’Brien claimed her information is wrong. Ms Murphy defends her sources.

Article 15, section 12 of the Irish constitution is very explicit in its endorsement of Dáil privilege and the right of those to publish remarks made within the Oireachtas. The court injunction and refusal of the Irish media to publish Teachta Murphy’s remarks for a time created a political furore and a significant constitutional crisis.

On Tuesday the legality of the issues were back for debate in the High Court where Mr. Justice Binchy confirmed that it was never his intention to silence TDs in the Dáil or to inhibit the media in reporting on matters arising in the Dáil. So, absolute Dáil privilege has been restored.

But the whole affair has raised a number of important issues of concern.

Firstly, neither the Taoiseach Enda Kenny nor the government demonstrated any leadership on this issue. No one from the government rushed to defend the rights of the Oireachtas and of Oireachtas members. They did not ask the Attorney General to clarify the issue of Dáil privilege nor did they go to court to assert it. The government left it to the media. A clear abdication of their constitutional and political responsibility.

Secondly, the government refused my request and that of other TDs to recall the Dáil to debate this very important matter of public concern.

Thirdly, the issue which gave rise to this controversy has not been resolved. The decision by the government to eventually concede a Commission of Investigation into IBRC is only part of the answer to this. I have written to the Taoiseach setting out a range of suggestions for strengthening the ability of the Commission of Investigation to get to the truth.

I am not hopeful that this government, which like Fianna Fáil before it, never takes on board what opposition parties propose, will do the right thing and amend the Terms of Reference accordingly. If it fails to do this then the Commission risks not having the confidence of the Oireachtas or of the public.

The Commission of Investigation must have the power to examine the political oversight of IBRC by the Minister for Finance and the Department of Finance. The government is trying to distance itself from all of this and from the Commission of Investigation. That is not good enough.

The Commission must also be allowed to review transactions, activities and management decisions involving KPMG in its role as special liquidator; and the government’s 31st December timeframe for completion of the report is unacceptable. There is understandable concern that there may be an election called between now and 31st December. The Investigation should be tasked to produce its report no later than 31st October 2015.

Fourthly, for those tens of thousands of families who are struggling to pay mortgages, or who cannot pay and live under the threat of eviction, and those small businesses who can’t get credit from the banks, all of this is evidence of the government’s differential treatment of banks and of the elites. Owe thousands and the state and the banks will relentlessly and ruthlessly pursue you. Owe millions and kid gloves are used.

The same concerns also exist around the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). It also has been handling billions in debts arising from the economic crash; mainly from the collapse of the construction industry. There is a lack of transparency here also.

And finally there is the a lá carte attitude of sections of the media and of some in the Dáil to the issue of Dáil privilege. Mary Lou McDonald named former politicians in the Dáil last November with alleged links to off-shore accounts following information released by a whistleblower.

She was pilloried by some of those, especially in Fianna Fáil and the government parties, who have been vocal in recent days defending Dáil privilege in respect of Catherine Murphy. The Fianna Fáil Chief Whip Seán  Ó Fearghail went so far as to report her to the Committee on Procedures and Privileges.

It would appear that here is one law for those who aren’t electoral competitors and another for those who are. Either Oireachtas members have absolute privilege or they don’t.

The Committee on Procedures and Privileges came out against Mary Lou. No surprise there. How will they respond, in light of the media’s rush to the High Court to defend freedom of speech, to accusations by some, including Denis O’Brien, that Catherine Murphy similarly abused privilege?

 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Reaching Out


A few years ago I visited NUI Galway to address the students on the peace process. The hall was packed and for reasons I still don’t quite understand there were very few chairs put out for the hundreds of students who turned up. Most sat on the floor and the craic was great.
I was back there again on Tuesday. The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, was in Ireland with his wife Camilla for a four day visit. At the weekend the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle met and discussed the party’s approach. On her recent visits to Ireland the British Queen Elizabeth had made clear her desire to be part of a process of reconciliation and healing. The meeting between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth in Belfast and then subsequently during a state visit by President Michael D, were widely acknowledged as historic and a boost to reconciliation efforts.
It was in this context, of peace building, that I raised the possibility of Sinn Féin leaders meeting with Charles during his visit.  I believed that such a meeting could be very helpful as we seek to heal the hurt of decades of conflict. Following several conversations it was agreed. On Tuesday morning Senator Trevor O Clochartaigh and I arrived at NUI Galway.
We were to be joined later by Martin McGuinness for a private meeting when the formal NUIG business was over. By the time Trevor and I arrived most of the guests were already assembled. They included school children from Connemara. At Trevor’s prompting they gave us a rousing rendition of Peigín Ligir Móir. I was delighted especially to meet Colm Seoighe a wonderful young guitarist and his fellow students and singers and their teachers. Colm’s guitar is autographed by Christy Moore.
‘Ride On ‘ dúirt mé leis.
In the meantime it rained. Then the sun shone warmly. Then it rained again. Luckily the meeting with Charles was indoors. We were introduced at the reception by Gearoid O Conluain on behalf of NUIG and shook hands.
I welcomed him in Irish and English. “Cead Mile Fáilte. Tá mé sasta go bhfuil tú arais agus tú ag dul go Mullach Mór”
“Welcome. It’s good that you are back and going to Mullach Mór”.
We spoke briefly before I introduced him to Trevor.

Later Trevor joined Martin and me for a private meeting with Charles. This engagement lasted about 20 minutes or so upstairs in an office. It was a cordial and relaxed discussion. Despite some of the difficult issues we each spoke of it was a positive conversation. We acknowledged that he and his family had been hurt and suffered great loss at Mullaghmore by the actions of Irish republicans. Martin and I said we were very conscious of this and of the sad loss of the Maxwell family whose son Paul was also killed.

We spoke also of the hurt inflicted on our friends and neighbours and on our own communities in Derry and Ballymurphy and Springhill by the actions of the Parachute Regiment and other British regiments. In 1971 and 1972 in Ballymurphy and Springhill sixteen local citizens, including three children, a mother of eight, two Catholic priests and ten unarmed men were killed by the Paras.

I also told him of the campaign by victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings to get the British Government to hand over its files about these events – believed to involve its agents - to Irish authorities.

He shared his own memories of the conflict starting in the 60s. It is obvious that he wants to play a positive role in making conflict a thing of the past. That is the Sinn Fein view also.

Thankfully the conflict is now over. Tuesday’s meeting is part of the necessary process which must now address in a more substantial way than ever before the issue of reconciliation and healing. That must mean that all victims and survivors of the conflict, who are still seeking justice and truth are given the strongest support.

Whether they were bereaved by the IRA, or by the myriad British state agencies, or through state sponsored collusion, the victims and their families and communities deserve justice. In this context it is crucial that the process of healing and of reconciliation is enhanced and strengthened.

Tuesday’s meeting in itself is a significant symbolic and practical step forward in the process of healing and reconciliation. But for substantial progress to be made the Governments and the political parties will have to build on this opportunity.
Reconciliation is an enormous challenge for all of us. It is a personal process of dialogue, engagement, and compromise. It’s about healing the past and building a new, better and fairer future based on equality.

There is now a peaceful way to end partition and the union. All who want a United Ireland have a duty to embrace this and to make friends with our neighbours.

The participation of myself and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Seanadóir Trevor O Clochartaigh and other Sinn Féin leaders in the visit by Prince Charles is a measure of our commitment to resolving outstanding legacy issues and to be part of an inclusive healing and reconciliation process and a new political dispensation between the people of this island.

I have no doubt that some people will be upset at the Galway meeting. That is their right if they are victims or survivors. Others may be upset because of their politics or because they have a narrow view of the past and no real strategy for the future. That also is their right.
But our resolve and responsibility is to ensure that no else suffers as a result of conflict; that no other family is bereaved; that the experience of war and of loss and injury is never repeated.This means all of us working together. That requires generosity and respect from all and for all.
We are all living in a time of transition for the people of the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.  I don’t have a lot in common with a member of the British royal family. But we are of the same age. We have some interests in common. These also were touched upon in our conversation. We have both been bereaved in conflict. This week’s engagements are part of the process of building relationships, breaking down barriers to understanding and creating the space – as Seamus Heaney defined it – ‘in which hope can grow.'

There are many challenges facing the political Institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement and by the popular will of the people of the island of Ireland. These challenges, which are multiple and immediate, must be overcome.

Leaders have a responsibility to lead. That is what we are trying to do. As we face into the future let all our steps be forward steps.


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