• The latest series of Holywell Conversations podcasts began with reflections on the Good Friday Agreement, amidst fears that Northern Ireland’s devolution was over, and that series has now completed at a time when government has actually resumed.

    Over the series’ 18 episodes two themes have been examined – the challenges holding back reconciliation within our society, and the specific problems that continue to face the North West region.

    In the first episode, we heard from three people at the table negotiating the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement. Avila Kilmurray of the Women’s Coalition explained just how significant the Women’s Coalition had been in terms of successfully pushing for the Civic Forum, which many of us still mourn the loss of, as well as women’s rights and other social concerns.

    We also heard from Paul Bew, Lord Bew, who was influential with David Trimble’s decision to sign up to devolution. And Ray Bassett, part of the Irish government’s team, emphasised that the Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of years of conversations between all the interested parties.

    Subsequent podcasts reflected not just on the success of achieving devolution, but also how many of the optimistic expectations from 25 years ago have not been met.

    Anger at the Legacy Act, just enacted, reflects the sense of legal stalemate now reached. Early in the series, Alyson Kilpatrick – Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commissioner – made a passionate call for respect for human rights, warning specifically about the impact of what was then being called the Legacy Bill. She also expressed concerns about calls from some members of the Conservative Party to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights – which is central to the Good Friday Agreement. Those warnings remain as relevant now, as when she made them early last year.

    Peter Sheridan, a former senior officer with the RUC and PSNI, is now Commissioner for Investigations at the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. In a recent podcast, he spoke about how events from the Troubles will be investigated as a result of the Legacy Act.

    But the challenges related to criminal justice lie not just with past events. Some 25 years ago there was an assumption that paramilitary groups would fade away. Instead, some have evolved into major organised crime gangs, generating substantial sums from dealing in drugs, money laundering and extortion.

    Taken together this constitutes ongoing coercive control of communities. Professor Dominic Bryan, who had been joint chair of the commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, told us there needs to be a stronger focus on removing flags and other signals of territorial demarcation – which provide paramilitary groups with a continuing form of what might be termed legitimisation.

    Elaine Crory, lobbyist at the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, made the point in a recent podcast that the operations of paramilitaries along with the history of Troubles’ violence have reinforced gender roles in our society. This has led to Northern Ireland today recording one of the highest levels of domestic violence of any place in Western Europe.

    Another hangover from the Troubles that has survived a quarter of a century is the presence of peace walls – especially in Belfast, but also in Derry. In one podcast we heard from Kyra Reynolds, development worker at the Peace Barriers Programme, on the ongoing work at Derry’s Bishop Street interface, bringing populations together who come from different traditions.

    When the Good Friday Agreement was signed we expected not only an end to peace walls, but also the achievement of a peace dividend. Yet analysis has suggested most of the so-called peace dividend has gone South, not North.

    Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick of Ulster University told in one podcast of the scale of poverty that continues to affect our society, all these years on from the peace talks and agreement. Significantly, she connected the ongoing deprivation also with the continuing presence of paramilitaries. She believes that poverty is helping to keep them going.

    Our podcast series also considered why Derry and the North West have specifically not prospered as expected after devolution. We examined why it has not been more successful, as the poorest area in NI, in gaining funding from the UK government’s Levelling-Up Fund; the city’s limited transport connectivity; the absence of a full size university campus; and the slow progress at Derry’s two major regeneration sites of Ebrington and Fort George. As well as that we reflected on what is possibly Europe’s worst illegal waste dump, Mobuoy, in a Derry suburb.

    This series is now over, but all the podcasts are available on the Holywell Trust website, along with an additional new episode reflecting on the series. Holywell itself has a comprehensive programme of new activities, details of which are also on the website. That is it, for now, from us.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Derry has been campaigning for a full sized university campus for the last 60 years. The city still holds a grievance over the Lockwood report from 1965, which chose Coleraine for the location of the new university, rather than Derry’s existing Magee College, then a Presbyterian theological college.

    I once interviewed Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who told me that some of the unionist politicians of the time wanted to close Magee completely, but he persuaded them not to.

    That context continues to influence how the university debate is seen in Derry, where student numbers today are around 5,500, rising in the near term to 6,500. While this is progress, it is still a long way short of the 10,000 aspiration specified in Derry’s regeneration plan, and which the former University for Derry group (which I co-ordinated) aspired to.

    It is even further behind the 20,000 student number that John Daly – economist for Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly – reports would be consistent with those of other Irish cities of similar size. John is one of the interviewees in the latest Holywell Conversations podcast, where he discusses how a larger university campus would benefit Derry and the wider North West region.

    But the problem is not only that Derry has too few university students, it is that Northern Ireland also has too few. There are slightly under 70,000 higher education students, spread across Ulster, Queen’s, the further education colleges and the two teacher training university colleges of Stranmillis and St Mary’s. Of these 70, 000 students, 71% are from NI, 4% from GB, 3% from RoI, and 21% are non-EU international students, paying higher fees.

    Wales has more than twice the number of students; Scotland has more than four times; while England has over 2.3 million HE students. England’s population is 30 times the size of Northern Ireland’s, so our student population should be about 7,000 greater if it was equivalent to that of England. If it was equivalent to Scotland, we would have nearer to 100,000.

    One factor is that Northern Ireland, unlike England, subsidises tuition fees for local students, which in turn limits the number of local students. That is what is called the MaSN cap, or maximum student number.

    The Irish Republic has over 250,000 higher education students. So the Republic has slightly fewer university students than Scotland, in keeping with having a smaller population.

    Investments from Ireland are going into Derry’s campus. The Irish government has provided €44.5m of capital to improve teaching facilities, which will reportedly enable an additional 1,800 students at the Derry campus. Ireland has also provided €10m to support 250 student nursing and midwifery places, of which 200 will be students from the South and 50 from the North. These numbers are split between Queen’s and Ulster’s Derry campus. Ireland is also subsidising Irish students at Derry’s medical school, training a new generation of doctors.

    As well as this, Ireland’s Shared Island Fund has commissioned the Royal Irish Academy to undertake a study into higher education provision in the cross-border North West region. Our latest podcast interviews Gerry McKenna of the Academy to hear what the findings are likely to be. Considerations include whether there should be an additional cross-border body overseeing higher education on the island.

    Ulster University provided a statement to us saying it “remains completely committed to growth at our campus in Derry~Londonderry,” adding that “substantial levels of investment, including from the University’s own reserves and surpluses, will be made into the campus in coming years. There are more students on our campus in Derry~Londonderry than ever before and we will continue to expand student numbers so as to, with our partners, continue to grow our already very significant contribution to economic and social impact in the whole of the northwest of the island.”

    There is a lobby group, the Derry University Group, that is arguing for the creation of a new independent university in Derry. While they were invited to participate in the podcast, they declined to do so.

    This podcast, and previous editions of the Holywell Conversations, can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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  • The Legacy Act is Here

    The widely opposed Legacy Bill is now enacted as the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, 2023. But it remains widely hated and the Irish government has launched inter-state proceedings against the UK administration. This is a clear and strong sign of how bad relations are between the two governments that are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement.

    Out of what we can now call the Legacy Act comes the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery. While this body – abbreviated to ICRIR – investigates past events from the Troubles, the Act limits criminal investigations, legal proceedings, inquests and police complaints.

    The Act also extends the prisoner release scheme that was initially enacted in 1998. In addition, the legislation aims to provide “for experiences to be recorded and preserved and for events to be studied and memorialised”.

    The Irish government’s inter-state case claims that the Legacy Act reneges on previous commitments entered into by the UK government through the Stormont House Agreement. In addition, that the legislation is not victim-centred; that it is not consistent with obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement; that it is widely opposed within Northern Ireland; that it allows for the granting of immunity; and that it closes down existing police investigations and civil actions. Ireland argues that the ICRIR investigations are not a substitute for properly resourced police investigations.

    In the latest Holywell Conversations, Sara Duddy from the Pat Finucane Centre explains why it and the victims it represents will not co-operate with ICRIR. Coinciding with the establishment of ICRIR, the Centre has launched its own ‘Impunity Project’, through which families of victims of Troubles killings seek to challenge false allegations against dead relatives. In some cases – as with Bloody Sunday – the Army falsely accused the dead of being bombers or otherwise paramilitaries to ‘justify’ their killings.

    Families are now seeking two types of justice – to know the truth behind killings and to correct false allegations against dead relatives.

    The other interview in the latest podcast is with Peter Sheridan, a former senior officer with the RUC and PSNI who is now Commissioner for Investigations at ICRIR. He operates under the overall leadership of former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan, who is the Chief Commissioner.

    Peter says that ICRIR hopes to be fully operational in the middle of this year and explains how it will proceed and how relatives of those who died, and also those seriously injured, will be able to raise cases with ICRIR. He argues strongly that his police background will not undermine his credibility as lead investigator.

    With such a wide array of opponents and critics of the Legacy Act – ranging from the five largest Northern Ireland parties, to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Chief Commissioner, to the departing Victims Commissioner, to victims groups and to international human rights groups – it seems implausible that ICRIR will have an easy birth.

    The podcast can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website along with previous episodes.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Women in Northern Ireland are twice as likely to be murdered as a result of domestic violence than in the other UK nations. In some years, almost half of Northern Ireland murders are connected to domestic violence. In the 2022/23 year, of 17 homicides there were 8 that resulted from domestic violence against women.

    Northern Ireland is also an outlier in international terms. While Finland has the highest rate of femicide by a partner, Northern Ireland is joint second with Hungary. (A report from Eurostat that found Northern Ireland and Romania to have the joint highest rate has been challenged by the PSNI as using a flawed calculation.)

    Domestic abuse of women goes far beyond murder and violence. There is a wider context of intimidation within the home, emotional abuse, bullying and coercive control. While this is not exclusively conducted by men on their female partners, this is the most common type of domestic abuse.

    There has been an assumption that a significant rise in recent years was the result of the pandemic and lockdown – with partners forced to spend 24 hours a day with each other in often very restricted environments. Yet the rate of domestic violence continued to rise after the lockdown ended.

    In the year ending March there were 32,875 incidents of domestic abuse reported in Northern Ireland to the PSNI. That is a slight fall over the previous year, after a consistent period of increases. Domestic abuse-related crimes increased last year, with more than 22,000 criminal incidents logged. To put that in context, there are 1.7 domestic abuse incidents for every 100 people in the population. That is in one year and that is the reported number. It represents about 20% of all reported crime in Northern Ireland.

    The PSNI records figures broken down according to the type of domestic incident. The most common are violence without injury. The second most common are violence with injury. The third type is harassment. The next most common – and these are less frequent – are criminal damage, theft, sexual offences and breaches of non-molestation orders. The incidents involving violence and of harassment have increased the most.

    There were eight of what are termed domestic abuse homicides recorded in the 2022/23 year in Northern Ireland, one of which was actually committed a few years before. In the previous years there were eight, nine, five, four and 11 homicides in each year. And that does not take into account suicides that followed from years of domestic abuse and coercive control – a point raised in a BBC documentary in recent days.

    The council areas with the highest numbers of reported domestic abuse are in Belfast, Armagh and Derry/Strabane. There were more than 3,000 domestic abuse incidents and more than 2,000 related crimes in Derry and Strabane in each of the last two years, with the numbers increasing.

    The latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast considers the crisis of domestic violence against women, interviewing Elaine Crory, lobbyist at the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, which is campaigning against sexual harassment and violence in Northern Ireland. She says there is an underlying macho culture in Northern Ireland – itself related to the violence in the Troubles – that has enabled violence against women within relationships. She adds that the scale of the problem has often been downplayed by decision makers, while the PSNI has not always been regarded as a trusted service to report domestic crime to.

    The positive news is that new laws were introduced in Northern Ireland last year, which extended the definition of domestic abuse to include non-physical abuse, including coercive control, intimidation and the psychological, emotional or financial abuse of a person, and which can also include the use of digital and other technologies. More than a thousand people have been arrested as a result. And in June another new offence of non-fatal strangulation – regarded as a warning sign of a potential murder attempt – has been introduced in Northern Ireland.

    The law has also been strengthened in the Republic, which has in addition provided new obligations on employers to provide support to staff who are dealing with domestic abuse.

    A new initiative from the Belfast Trust has developed a Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse Support Toolkit to support staff who are being abused at home or elsewhere. We interview the trust’s Samantha Whann and Orla Barron, who explain that the toolkit was developed in partnership with trade unions and is available to other employers.

    The podcast is available at the https://www.holywelltrust.com/htc-episode-1-gfa-analysis-opens-new-podcast-serieshttps://www.holywelltrust.com/htc-episode-1-gfa-analysis-opens-new-podcast-series along with previous episodes.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • There is immense frustration across Northern Ireland’s community sector that the Civic Forum collapsed in 2002 and was not replaced. Demands are increasing for citizens’ assemblies, or similar, to provide an alternative voice to that of politicians, especially in the absence of the Assembly and Executive.

    Avila Kilmurray was a founder of the Women’s Coalition which led demands for the Civic Forum as part of the Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Avila makes the point that it was also the Women’s Coalition that negotiated into the GFA sections on recognising and supporting victims of the Troubles; women’s representation; community development; and a focus on housing.

    “The idea of the citizen’s voice, civic forum, civic assembly, whatever you call it, we thought was particularly important in Northern Ireland because of the conflict,” reflected Avila. “And because politics anyway, particularly in a contested society, draws the oxygen out from so many other issues, because everything is focused on (a) the constitutional question and (b) how you stop the violence.”

    Other concerns that were never mentioned, said Avila, included domestic violence – with civil servants saying at the time that it was not an issue, proven by the fact that no one raised it with them.

    Avila was speaking at an event to initiate a series of in-depth consultative events run by the Holywell Trust that provided mechanisms for ‘other’ voices to be heard.

    These were the ‘Thirty’ conversations – so-called as they each brought together around thirty individuals who were interested in drilling down into contentious matters of concern, leading to them formulating detailed recommendations on how to make progress. Those topics were legacy; education; and providing a forum for civic voices, separately, in Belfast and Derry.

    Catherine Cooke was one of the ‘Thirty’ participants, who is steeped in community activity in the North West, but said that what she particularly valued from the events was listening to voices that are seldom heard. “We only hear from politicians,” she says. “People came from different walks of life and it made it interesting to hear what was their priority. It was getting an insight into a new perspective.”

    Grainne McCloskey, another participant, said: “I thought it was a really interesting concept, innovative to be thinking about it 25 years on [from the Good Friday Agreement].” She added: “I thought it was one of best facilitated events I have ever attended,” providing exactly the right level of engagement in discussions, bringing expert voices in, as well as mixed participation from those attending.

    Grainne added that “a lot of things that were in the peace process are hidden from the average person in the street, not through any kind of cover up”, but because the public are not engaged in the detail of the Good Friday Agreement and party politics.

    “Since attending, I’m much more switched on.” She added: “I can see in my work there is a change in the way I think about it…. now when I’m shaping something where people are coming together, I make a point of pointing out some of our commonalities… There’s a lot of differences, but there are a lot of common approaches too.”

    Fiona Corvan of the Holywell Trust said the concept had been inspired by the success of the Citizen’s Assemblies in the South. “We wanted to give people the chance to learn and to be engaged in some divisive issues – we looked at civic engagement 25 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and reconciling the past with a future focus.”

    Fiona added: “It was heartening to see that people are really interested in the issues that affect them and that are shaping our society. Quite often they are not given the chance to influence or have their say. And there is a culture of misinformation or lack of information.

    “We can be so consumed by news and headline news, that quite often we miss complexities and nuances around those big issues…. One of the things we are proud of is that we used a model that works elsewhere and used the learning from that on a smaller scale.”

    The events were financially supported by The Executive Office through its Together Building a United Community programme.

    The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website along with previous episodes. A video explaining the Thirty concept can also be accessed on the Holywell website, as can the recommendations from the series of events.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Agriculture is worth around £1.7bn to the Northern Ireland economy, 4% of total economic activity, according to figures published by the Department for the Economy. This compares to farming comprising just 1% of the UK economy – so farming is worth four times more to our economy, proportionately, than to the rest of the UK.

    But it is a sector that is in transition and worried. Post-Brexit trade deals agreed by the UK with major agricultural economies Australia, New Zealand and South Africa caused anxiety. Further possible deals with Brazil and Canada are increasing that concern. The size of these countries’ farms and farming businesses provide economies of scale that Northern Ireland farms can’t match.

    The British government has pledged that new trade deals will not involve reductions in environmental protection, food standards or animal welfare. Some campaigners have expressed scepticism about this, at least in the longer term. No government can bind future governments.

    Both the Ulster Farmers Union and Britain’s National Farmers Union have criticised these trade deals, which they argue damage UK farming interests.

    Currently around half of UK food consumption is domestically produced. Much of the meat sold by UK supermarkets is bought on international markets. The UK records a trade deficit in both the meat and dairy markets. Pre-Brexit, most agricultural exports were to EU member states.

    The dairy market represents a specific concern – with farmers selling milk at prices below the cost of production. A few weeks ago the Ulster Farmers’ Union said that farmers were being paid 57 pence per two litre container of milk, out of a then typical £1.65 retail price. That £1.65 compares with farmers’ production cost of 70 pence per two litres. So farmers are losing 13 pence for every two litres of milk they produce, whereas the retailers and processors between them take £1.08 per two litres in terms of their costs, plus margins.

    It should be explained that some of the processors are dairy co-ops, owned by farmers, though not necessarily controlled by farmers.

    Moreover, farmers receive additional income through farming support payments. Until Brexit, farmers here received Single Farm Payments, under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy.

    Farmers in Northern Ireland can now claim under the Basic Payment Scheme. A total of £294m is available for payments to farmers who are farming at least three hectares of land – that is 30,000 square metres.

    The UK government is phasing-out direct payments for farmers in England over a seven year period, providing support instead through public payments for public good – which is focused on environmental protection and climate change mitigation measures.

    Northern Ireland is making similar changes. The Basic Payment System will be replaced in 2025 by the Farm Sustainability Payment, with new targets and conditions. A new Farm Support and Development Programme will be phased in, with payments reduced. Farmers will increasingly be paid for their environmental supports, along with resilience, efficiency improvement and supply chain development.

    The latest Holywell Conversations podcast discusses both the impact of Brexit and how farmers can manage the demands on them to meet environmental targets. Interviewees are William Taylor of Farmers for Action and John Gilliland, a former president of the Ulster Farmers Union and an environmental advisor to the agriculture sector.

    The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • When waiting lists are discussed and shouted about in Northern Ireland, we are usually talking about our disintegrating healthcare system. But there is a second waiting list crisis – that of households seeking social housing.

    As at March of last year, there were 44,426 applicants on the social housing waiting list. Of these, over 10,000 were regarded as homeless and more than 31,000 were in housing stress. Nor is the situation improving. There was a 20% jump in applicants for social housing in Derry and Strabane last year.

    House building is not catching up – instead it is increasingly falling behind. There were a mere 922 completions of social housing units of accommodation – houses and apartments – in the 2021/22 year across all of NI. At this rate, it would take four decades to meet the demand.

    Meanwhile, the private sector has been exploiting the opportunity. There are now as many private sector tenancies as in the whole of the social housing sector – the Housing Executive and housing associations combined. And there are complaints that some private sector properties are of very poor standard.

    Another symptom of the crisis is the massive increase in demand for temporary accommodation. Total spend across Northern Ireland has jumped from £5.8m in the 2018/19 year to £23.7m in the 2022/23 year. In Derry and Strabane this has risen from £930,000 to £5.8m over that same four year time period. The increase for Belfast is much smaller, having increased from £1.6m to £3.7m in that time.

    In the latest Holywell Conversations podcast, housing campaigner Marissa McMahon, who works with both Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) and the Simon Community, discusses the scale of the crisis and how this can be addressed. Paddy Gray, emeritus professor of housing at Ulster University and a seasoned housing association board director, considers how social housing providers can boost construction.

    Despite the shortfall, there are significant development programmes being taken forward. Belfast city centre is awash with city centre apartment construction. In Derry, the focus is more on the suburbs, where some very large schemes are underway. A new Cashel estate on the Buncrana Road will eventually produce 2,500 new homes, including 800 social housing units. That is a joint scheme between private developer Braidwater and Apex Housing Association.

    Apex has appointed Kevin Watson Construction to build out another new development of 250 homes at Springtown, which was approved against advice from planning officials. And Apex has led on the construction of more than a thousand new homes in the Skeogh area of Derry over the last eight years. Choice Housing Association is now to construct an additional 244 homes in the same area. Choice, in partnership with South Bank Square Ltd, is also building another 252 properties on the Waterside, by the Gransha roundabout.

    It is too soon to determine what impact, if any, these new developments will have on community integration. The Housing Executive reports that social housing segregation remains most common in the urban parts of Belfast, Derry and Craigavon. But it is proud of its Shared Housing programme, which has grown to 69 schemes comprising 1,973 homes, delivered by 11 housing associations across all council areas.

    The Housing Executive says that people want to live in mixed communities, pointing to the Life and Times Survey, which indicates that 79% of respondents would like to live in an integrated, non-segregated, housing community. But the main priority for tenants is to live close to relatives and friends, which creates a drag on cross-community integration.

    There are other signs of progress, with a big fall in the number of households that have had to be re-housed because of sectarian and other intimidation. In 2002/3, there were over 1,000 households seeking assistance because of intimidation. By 2022, this had fallen to 171 households.

    There has been a comparable fall in properties acquired after forced evacuation, under the SPED scheme, the use of which fell from 382 properties in 2003/4, down to nothing in 2021/2 and just one in 2022/3.

    At least there are some positive signs of progress.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Derry is a frustrated city. Too often promises of improvement either come to nothing, or happen too slowly.

    Anyone who doubts this can consider the regeneration of two major development sites – Ebrington and Fort George. One is now partially occupied, the other largely vacant. This is two decades after the fanfare of their transfer from the Ministry of Defence for the benefit of the city.

    The former Ebrington Barracks, also known at one time as HMS Sea Eagle, were gifted to the Northern Ireland Executive as part of the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative of May 2002. That is 21 years ago. The other sites handed over alongside Ebrington were Maze/Long Kesh, Crumlin Road Gaol and barracks in Magherafelt and Malone Road in Belfast.

    Over the years, there has been a lot of criticism of slow progress at Ebrington. But things speeded up recently, with Ebrington Hotel opening in the summer of this year. There are also bars, cafes and offices that opened around the main square. Major new Grade A offices at the adjacent Ebrington Plaza look as if they are near completion.

    However, there has been tension in the last month over the use of Ebrington’s main public space. It appears that no legally binding agreement had been put in place by The Executive Office that clarified arrangements for its use and the potential nuisance to local businesses. This led to The Executive Office making compensation payments of at least £280,000 to businesses. There have been strong criticisms of The Executive Office for its handling of matters.

    There is sensitivity as a result of the fall-out, which may explain why neither the Ebrington Hotel nor Ebrington Holdings – which has a role in the future development of the area – responded to requests to discuss the situation for the latest Holywell Conversations podcast.

    Heron Brothers, which are the lead developers of the adjacent new Grade A offices which tower over Ebrington, also did not respond to our question of when the offices will be complete and occupied. The Executive Office chose not to speak to us, or provide a comment.

    As a result of the row over the use of Ebrington’s public space, a resolution was agreed a few days ago by Derry City and Strabane District Council. This “reaffirms commitment to the transfer of Ebrington from TEO to Council as soon as its practically possible”, with the council’s officials instructed meanwhile to engage with The Executive Office “so Council can provide the management and oversight function of sustainable and cost-effective events at the Square.”

    This suggests there may not be a quick resolution to conflicts over future use of the public space, especially as The Executive Office does not appear to have guaranteed that the public space will be available for future events.

    Despite these issues, Ebrington has become much more vibrant in recent months, since the opening of the hotel. A further development on the site will be the Derry North Atlantic Museum. This was to have been opened in 2016, but there have been delays in obtaining funding approval. Progress has recently accelerated, construction is to begin “as soon as possible”, says the council, and it is hoped it will open in 2025.

    Our latest podcast interviews owners of two businesses located at Ebrington – James Huey of The Walled City Brewery and Paul Nelis of Challenge Curve – who are both very positive about the location.

    While there is continued frustration at how slow the regeneration of Ebrington has been, the situation at Fort George is very much worse.

    Fort George was transferred under a different arrangement to that of Ebrington. It was handed back by the Ministry of Defence to Londonderry Port and Harbour – now known as Foyle Port – and sold to the Department for Social Development, now known as the Department for Communities, in May 2004 for £12m. So that is 19 years ago.

    Regeneration of Fort George was in part delayed by the need to remediate the site because of oil pollution dating from when it was part of a Naval dockyard and also because of the presence of the Japanese knotweed invasive species.

    There is just one building so far constructed at Fort George, which is the Catalyst facility for new start and developing technology businesses. It is fully let and a second Catalyst unit is to be built – planning permission has been approved and finance is being arranged.

    Back in December 2015, the Department for Communities obtained outline planning permission for mixed use development of Fort George. This led to a tender exercise in 2018, seeking expressions of interest for parts of the site. The Western Health Trust obtained approval for its bid.

    The Department told us that Western Trust will use the site for an “integrated primary, community and acute” centre. It will generate 250 new permanent jobs, as well relocating 450 existing posts. The Western Trust added that it is “working to complete” the outline business case, which is needed to move ahead with procurement for construction.

    It is unclear why the sale process has taken five years. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of correspondence in order to understand this, but our application was rejected on the grounds that it contained thousands of items and was therefore excused from disclosure because of the cost of administration.

    Western Trust did disclose another important point. “The Department of Communities is working with other stakeholders to progress the development of the remainder of the Fort George site for development including the planning required for access, internal road and car parking infrastructure all of which will meet both the Western Trust and future stakeholder needs.”

    DfC itself explained: “The Department is currently revising the Masterplan to incorporate the proposed Health and Care Centre on the site. In the longer term, the Department intends to market the remainder of the site.”

    Western Trust is to occupy a mere 1.7 acres of the total 11 acres. This means that after nearly two decades there remains no clarity on how the majority of the site is to be used. Nor is the road infrastructure in place to support a major development.

    The latest Holywell Conversations podcast considers the regeneration of the two sites. It is a complex story, but does help to explain the continuing grievance the residents of Derry have when it comes to decisions taken by government in Northern Ireland.

    The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Last week was Good Relations Week, the annual Community Relations Council event that aims to build relationships between people of different backgrounds in Northern Ireland, including across the traditional Catholic and Protestant divisions and also people of differing ethnicities.

    You might say this remains work in progress, which is not the fault of the CRC. Northern Ireland remains a toxically divided society - exemplified, and arguably amplified, by the inability of the two largest parties of the two largest communities to govern together.

    Northern Ireland’s first Good Relations Week was in 1990 – some 33 years ago. The Troubles were still going strong – 81 people died that year, with more civilians killed than either paramilitaries or members of the RUC and army. It wasn’t the worst year in the Troubles, but nor was it the best. It was just yet another year that showed that some people here found it impossible to live with others. People died together, instead of living together.

    1990 was not just the first year of Good Relations Week, it was also when the Community Relations Council was itself established – the parent of Good Relations Week. CRC’s role is to lead and support change towards reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust. On behalf of The Executive Office, the CRC assists in implementing the Good Relations Strategy, which is called Together: Building a United Community, or T:BUC.

    The latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast discusses the annual Good Relations Week and considers its value. Michael McGlade from the Community Relations Council for Northern Ireland – which funds the podcast and, indeed, this blog – points out that NI has “changed dramatically” since the advent of the CRC and Good Relations Week, not least with the Good Friday Agreement being signed 25 years ago.

    “There’s been a wholesale change in society since then,” says Michael. He sees Good Relations Week as an opportunity to tell people what is being done on a continuing basis to bring people together – and to give credit to organisations and programmes that are engaged in community reconciliation. “It says, here’s things that are going on.”

    The Holywell Trust’s partner agency, funded by the CRC, is peacebuilding charity The Junction, led by Ruth Gonzavlez-Moore. Community education is at the heart of The Junction’s work, including through challenging power imbalances, patriarchy and imperialism, while considering the impact of the history of violence on how society and politics function today.

    “The Junction has also delivered and developed healing projects,” says Ruth, “hearing people’s stories around lived experience in the conflict.” The Junction seeks to influence how peacebuilding is undertaken.

    Fiona Corvan, senior programmer for the Holywell Trust, says that some of its events for Good Relations Week tackled very difficult themes, especially around the legacy of the Troubles. “We are conscious that we need to reflect difficult conversations in our work,” she says.

    The audience of one production felt challenged by its consideration of events in The Troubles, while admitting they find it difficult to take into account the perspectives of others. Fiona adds that the passing of the Legacy Act made the performance especially poignant, with the play asking “is there a timeline to victimhood?”

    Fiona questions the role of Good Relations Week for an organisation that focuses on good relations all year round. The ongoing work of Holywell involves hosting conversations between people of differing perspectives not only on the past, but also about the constitutional future. She personally believes that Good Relations Week needs to evolve so that it speaks to those people and communities that at present do not engage in projects such as these.

    The discussion is available as a podcast at the Holywell Trust website, along with all previous podcasts in the series.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Why do we still have ‘peace walls’?

    Why, a quarter of a century after the Good Friday Agreement, do we still have peace walls? The truth, of course, is that the peace deal ended the conflict, but failed to end division and embed reconciliation.

    Murdered journalist Lyra McKee famously wrote that more ‘peace walls’ have gone up in since the GFA than have come down. There are today over 20 miles of those walls, with the majority in Belfast. The most well known of these separate the Falls Road and the Shankill Road, while televised riots over the Northern Ireland Protocol broke out at the barricades at Springfield Road.

    In Derry, there is just one ‘peace wall’ – which is between the Fountain estate and Bishop Street Without. The Fountain estate is Protestant / unionist and the only part of the city side which is. Yet the southern side of the Fountain estate does not have a peace wall – these are streets which feature terraced housing, much of it in private ownership. And some of that area has become mixed in recent years, with people moving in from other areas, of other traditions, including ethnic minorities and probably some Catholics. So the broader Fountain area is becoming more plural.

    Because the River Foyle was a natural barrier between the overwhelmingly Catholic city-side and a more Protestant Waterside, we never had the number of peace walls in Derry that became common in Belfast.

    However, there are two community interfaces on Derry’s Waterside and these are not marked by walls. One of these is the separation of the neighbouring Catholic Curryneiran and Protestant Tullyally estates; the other would be between Irish Street and the Top of the Hill.

    The positive news from Derry is that a programme has been underway for the last 15 years to reconcile neighbouring communities of different traditions on the Waterside, which has led to the creation of a ‘shared village’, backed by substantial capital investment. This has gained the support from community groups in both the Protestant Irish Street area and the Catholic Top of the Hill. And a project funded by the International Fund for Ireland is engaged in bringing together the Protestant Fountain and Catholic Bishop Street residents on the city side.

    While these projects represent real progress, we cannot overlook demographic changes that can add to tensions. The birth rate in Protestant communities is lower than amongst Catholics, even today. There is probably a different attitude to birth control for most Catholics now than in the past - but the Protestant population is significantly older than the Catholic population – and Protestants therefore make-up a smaller proportion of the parenting age population.

    This demographic trend tends to mean that housing pressure in Catholic areas is greater than in Protestant areas. In turn, this can mean there are empty homes in what would traditionally be regarded as Protestant areas, compared to overcrowding in Catholic areas. That creates social tensions and pressure to shift traditional boundaries.

    In addition, we have many more mixed religion families; and families with no religion. And, of course, more ethnic minorities who can only find empty properties in traditionally Protestant areas, leading to a greater diversity that is not always welcomed. In fact, the entire population growth in Belfast over the last two decades can be explained by the arrival of new ethnic minority communities.

    What we see is a watering down of the traditional cultural character of some areas, with some residents – including some with paramilitary connections – trying to preserve the long standing monocultures. Not all of these tensions are easily addressed.

    The latest Holywell Conversations podcast considers the continuing presence of peace walls and community divisions, with contributions from Kyra Reynolds, development worker at the Peace Barriers Programme, and Alison Wallace, strategy manager of the Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership.

    The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Derry and Donegal are not only marginalised by their geographic position on the periphery of the island of Ireland, but they are also very badly served by the transport infrastructure. They are not alone in this: there are also complaints from Sligo, Fermanagh and elsewhere in the West expressing similar concerns.

    After a long campaign, parts of the A6 road between Derry and Belfast have been upgraded - though it is still not a dual carriageway between Dungiven and Castledawson. It was back in the 1960s that there were government plans to provide a motorway link from Belfast to Derry – which has still not happened and probably now never will.

    Much of the immediate concern today is focused on the A5 road, between Derry and Dublin. In particular, the very high number of accidents and deaths along this road. It has been described as the most dangerous in Ireland, with 47 people killed in road accidents since plans were announced in 2007 to significantly upgrade it.

    This is just one element of the transport infrastructure weakness in the North West region. Another can be seen clearly by looking at a map of the rail system. Derry is the end of the line, despite at one point in the city’s history having four stations and lines emerging out from the city. Neighbouring towns to the West and the South such as Letterkenny, Strabane and Omagh no longer have any rail connectivity.

    Plans recently announced by the two administrations of the Republic and Northern Ireland indicate a possible partial reversal of past decisions closing rail lines. The all-island rail review was launched in 2021 by the South’s transport minister and Green Party leader Eamonn Ryan along with the then NI infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon. The results of that review were published last month.

    For Derry, the proposals include one of great significance. This would be an additional rail connection to Belfast, achieved by reopening the rail link through Portadown, with the route travelling via Strabane, Omagh, Portadown and then through Lisburn into Belfast. Passengers could also connect on to Dublin via Portadown, with the Belfast to Dublin route potentially being upgraded for faster journey times.

    Other elements of the plan include a spur from the Derry to Portadown line heading into Letterkenny and the possibility of a new rail connection between Derry and Limavady. And there will be further work undertaken into cross-Dublin mainline connectivity, which would potentially lead to a Belfast to Cork service, without the need to divert to local services between the two major Dublin stations of Connolly and Heuston.

    A core element of the plan is the electrification of mainline rail across the island as part of the strategy to decarbonise our economy and transport system. Broader aspirations of the plan include cutting traffic-related air pollution, congestion and also the desire in the South to spread housing demand, achieved through improved public transport connectivity.

    None of this is cheap. The entire programme outlined is costed at around €32bn, or £27bn. And before anyone gets too excited, even after – or maybe if – there is political agreement behind it, the plan would take a quarter of a century to deliver. And there is not even unanimous support within government in the Republic behind it, nor, of course, is there any sort of government in the North to either object or endorse it.

    It is significant that the consultation that accompanied the review had a disproportionately large response from residents in the North, especially the North West. This illustrates how important transport connectivity is for Derry and the rest of the region.

    The latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast considers this transport infrastructure deficit in the North West and specifically the proposals contained in the all island rail review. These would substantially improve rail connectivity for Derry, Tyrone and parts of Donegal.

    ‘Into the West’ successfully campaigned against the possible closure of the rail line into Derry and is lobbying for renewed rail links in the North West. Steve Bradley of the group tells the podcast that while he welcomes the proposals contained in the review, it has not recommended everything the group is seeking.

    The podcast also hears from Northern Ireland roads expert Wesley Johnston, who considers what could be learnt from the overspends on the road construction programme in terms of the likely actual cost of such an ambitious programme of work on our rail system.

    This and earlier Holywell Conversations podcasts can be listened to through the Holywell Trust website.

  • Only the most devoted conspiracy theorist could deny climate change given the devastating events of recent weeks. Spring was marked by deadly fires in Canada, terrible floods in Northern Italy and even an unfamiliar heatwave in Northern Ireland.

    Now things have got even more deadly, with awful new fire outbreaks in Greece, Italy Algeria and Tunisia. And a severe worsening of ice melting in the Antarctic. Meanwhile, the drought and loss of agricultural land in the Horn of Africa is leading to starvation and population displacement – and contributing to regional wars.

    Even before the apocalyptic events of recent weeks, the evidence was clear that climate change is happening. The hottest day ever recorded in the UK was in July last year. The hottest day ever recorded in Ireland was in August last year. All of the UK's 10 warmest years have been recorded since 2000. And until this year, last year was Europe’s hottest ever. Over 60,000 people died from heat in Europe in 2022.

    The Met Office states categorically that this series of hot weather records is directly related to climate change and results from the widespread burning of fossil fuels that began with the Industrial Revolution. It is probably now a matter of mitigating the crisis, rather than reversing it. But with much of Northern Ireland’s coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels, we have our own selfish interest in achieving the least worst outcome.

    In the latest Holywell Conversations podcast, Professor John Barry puts the climate crisis in perspective. But as well as analysis we hear from the National Energy Agency’s home energy advisor Nichola MacDougall on what we can do to improve the energy efficiency in our homes – which will both cut our own carbon emissions, but also cut our heating bills during the cost of living crisis.

    While there is a lot of discussion about the big ticket items that will bring down carbon emissions and heating bills, Nichola talks about some low cost improvements that will make a big difference. These include blocking unused chimneys and focusing on improved insulation around the home. For once political action can save consumers money, rather than spending it.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Recent weeks have seen a rise in concern about the continuing presence of paramilitaries in our society. Just how we make faster progress in removing them is the question considered in the latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast.

    Clearly, 25 years ago when the Good Friday Agreement was approved by the public, they would have expected paramilitaries to have been fully or largely removed from our society by now. Yet we still see significant activity by both loyalist and republican groups.

    Should we, though, as chief executive of Co-operation Ireland and former senior PSNI and RUC officer Peter Sheridan suggests, see some of the groups simply as organised crime gangs? Would that reflect more accurately where our society is in comparison to those places in Dublin, London and the United States, for example, which are also burdened by drug-related criminality?

    Given that paramilitaries exercise coercive control over communities, with territories marked out by flags, is effective regulation and policing of the use of flags an essential element in asserting dominance over paramilitary groups? This is an approach favoured by Professor Dominic Bryan, who was joint chair of the commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. And why is that commission’s report, as Bryan puts it, sitting on shelves “gathering dust”, rather than being implemented?

    Despite this sense of negativity, we should reflect on the progress achieved, especially since the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015, which identified the need to end paramilitarism “once and for all”. It established the Independent Reporting Commission to focus on this.

    The trend since then has been downward, though it rose again in the last year. In the 12 months ending 31st May, there was one security-related death; seven bombings; 33 shootings; and 32 casualties of paramilitary assaults.

    Tackling paramilitary criminality is handled jointly by the PSNI, An Garda Síochána, HMRC, the National Crime Agency and the security services. It is the approach of the PSNI, in particular, that has been questioned, with critics suggesting that heavy-handed policing undermines acceptance of the PSNI in poorer communities and has led to greater support for paramilitaries.

    These complaints grew in recent days with the arrest in public sight of a health care worker in Derry, with very public comments about the arrest from the PSNI. This led to strong criticisms of the police from her solicitors, Madden and Finucane.

    The firm stated that “to arrest a woman with no criminal record, from her place of work where she is a well respected health care professional wholly unconnected to criminality of any kind, and to then denigrate her good name in the most egregious way, is to be condemned and deplored”.

    Asked whether heavy handed policing undermines the PSNI’s attempts at tackling paramilitaries, Sheridan put the spotlight on how the Policing Board sees its role. “The Policing Board needs to be more vocal around this staff and take more public responsibility,” he says, adding that the political parties should nominate more senior members onto the Board, to raise its status. “I think Sinn Fein are probably the only people today who put people onto the Board who are particularly well known.”

    The podcast can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • A few days ago the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons was told that for some communities here, the expected peace dividend from the Good Friday Agreement never arrived.

    Tim Attwood of the John and Pat Hume Foundation reported on its recent ‘Peace Summit’. “One of the young people said, ‘The conflict was not the problem; the peace is’, because, in so many places, they do not see the dividend. Some working-class people in parts of Belfast or Derry do not see the dividend. Where are the jobs? Where is the investment that gives them the hope for the future?”

    A couple of years ago, the Derry University Group – lobbyists for university expansion in the city – published research from accountant Cormac Duffy which concluded that, in real terms, while the Belfast economy grew by 14% since the Good Friday Agreement, Derry’s economy contracted by 7%. Those figures are rejected, both by the independent FactCheckNI and by Derry City and Strabane District Council. Yet the conclusions resonated in Derry, where there is resentment and a feeling of being left behind.

    Duffy’s conclusion was based on comparing Gross Value Added in the two cities. But, as the author himself recognised, those statistics are distorted by the commuting nature of the Belfast economy, with many of the best paying jobs in the capital taken by people who live in Lisburn, Bangor and elsewhere.

    The unemployment rate provides an alternative measure of progress. At the time of the Good Friday Agreement, the unemployment rate in the Foyle constituency was 15.2% and the male unemployment rate 20.7%. This was the 7th worst in the UK, behind Belfast West and several deprived areas of England. Today the claimant count rate in Foyle is 5.6% and 6.9% for men.

    The UK rate in 1998 was 6.3%, today it is 3.9%. In 1998, the Foyle rate was around 9% higher than that of the UK average. Today it is 1.7% higher. So measured by official unemployment rates, Derry has gained a peace dividend.

    Yet, Derry continues to lag behind the rest of the UK in employment rate and wealth generation. While the UK had an employment rate of 75% at the end of 2021, it was just 65% in the Derry and Strabane council area. And the levels of deprivation in the city (as in parts of Belfast) continue to be disgraceful, 25 years on from a peace accord that might have been expected to resolve most of our society’s challenges.

    Some 38% of the population in Derry and Strabane are classed as income deprived, compared to the NI figure of 25%. Pay in Derry and Strabane is 9% below the NI median, while disposable income per head is 11% below the NI average. More positively, the council points to official statistics indicating that both Derry and Belfast have been catching up with the rest of the UK in terms of median pay, and also that Derry has been catching up with Belfast.

    But official statistics also reveal that more than half of children growing up in Derry and Strabane live in areas classed as deprived. While 42% of children in Derry are eligible for free school meals, this compares to 28% across NI as a whole and 22.5% in England. This is an astonishing disparity.

    It is the lack of progress in narrowing Derry’s poverty gap with the rest of the UK that has caused many people to argue that there has not been a sufficient peace dividend for Derry – with some communities almost untouched by economic improvement.

    A presentation last week in Derry by John Daly, senior economist at the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, both spelled out the dire situation in Derry and Donegal, while also suggesting a solution. Daly argued this requires expanding university provision in Derry; capitalising on the opportunities presented by the new Atlantic Technological University across the border; increasing the focus on the high technology research produced by the two institutions; and exploring how to develop regional structures.

    The latest Holywell Trust Conversations podcast discusses the weakness of the peace dividend for Derry – and the rest of NI – with Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick of Ulster University; Garbhan Downey of the Derry University Group; and Tim Attwood, chief executive of the John and Pat Hume Foundation.

    * A report on the ‘Peace Summit’ – ‘The Unfinished Business of Peace and Reconciliation – A Call to Action’ – has been published. The Holywell Trust is a partner organisation.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Just five miles from Derry’s city centre, on the suburban edge of the Waterside, is the site of one of the worst environmental crimes in UK history. It has been described as Europe’s largest illegal waste dump, which may be an exaggeration, but it is certainly one of the very biggest.

    The Mobuoy waste dump runs across both sides of Derry’s Mobuoy Road. It covers 116 acres and contains 100 tonnes of illegally buried rubbish. While the company running the site was legally registered as a waste disposal business, it evaded around £100m in tax through its illegal use of the site. There are fears that toxins from the waste could spill into the adjoining River Faughan, which provides some of Derry’s drinking water. It is contaminating fresh water relied upon by wildlife and there are fears for neighbouring farmland.

    Until a few weeks ago, it was not possible to report properly on this scandal, though there was an official investigation into Mobuoy by Chris Mills - the so-called Mills Report. There has been a long-running attempt to prosecute directors of the company. Two of whom have now been convicted, which means Mobuoy can now be discussed.

    The Mobuoy effects will be long lasting. Not only will most of the rubbish not decay naturally, quickly, but there is no decision yet on how to clean it up. Any solution is likely to cost hundreds of millions of pounds. And the final element of the upgraded section of the A6 Belfast to Derry road was to have arrived at Gransha – via Mobuoy. Instead, for the moment at least, it ends at Drumahoe.

    A recent Radio 4 series and podcast reported in detail on this crime and led to much greater attention to it than had previously been the case. In addition, Sam McBride of the Belfast Telegraph wrote a series of reports on the Mobuoy scandal.

    In the latest of the podcast series Holywell Trust Conversations, Sam provides the background to his articles and the shock he experienced on visiting the site. We also discuss with Queen’s University PhD student June Hwang his research for his dissertation and his assertion that it is the sectarianisation of Northern Ireland government that led to environmental protection being sidelined.

    Dean Blackwood, a member of Derry environmental group The Gathering, who is also a professional planner and one of the most respected figures in Ireland in environmental protection, considers in the podcast why Northern Ireland, especially the North West, has such a serious problem with this extremely lucrative environmental crime.

    While Mobuoy is the extreme example of environmental crime, Derry’s rural roads are littered with dumped rubbish. And illicit waste operators have long been accused of taking local waste across the border into Donegal to illegally bury trash.

    This is a problem for which there is no quick or easy solution, either regarding Mobuoy, or the wider problem. But it is essential that the challenge is properly examined and discussed.

    The podcast can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Human rights are under threat in the UK, warns the Northern Ireland Human Rights Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick.

    While the immediate question is whether the British government will change the law in order to remove large numbers of asylum seekers to Rwanda, this is in the context of proposals for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. This would have significant, negative, implications for Northern Ireland, given that this is one of the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

    The future of human rights legislation is the subject of the latest Holywell Trust Conversations, our podcast series looking at contentious challenges facing Northern Ireland. This latest podcast contains an in-depth interview with Alyson Kilpatrick, along with contributions from the new director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, Daniel Holder, and Queen’s University Professor of Human Rights, Colin Harvey.

    Both Alyson and Daniel express real concern about the threats to human rights in all the UK. Colin shares those concerns, while suggesting that much of the rhetoric from government ministers is to create a political environment for exploitation in the next General Election, and may not be realised in the actual legal changes that will be approved by Parliament.

    It is important to recognise that the context is about much more than deporting asylum seekers to Africa, including those who are fleeing from wars and oppression in places such as Afghanistan, Syria and the Horn of Africa.

    Questions were raised about the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights – and being subject to the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights – during the Brexit referendum debates. This is despite the ECHR being separate from the EU; pre-dating the creation of the EU and its predecessors; having a much larger membership; and it having been an initiative of British Conservative Second World War Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

    Three government Bills affect – diminish, argue human rights lawyers – human rights in the UK. The most profound of these is the Bill of Rights Bill, which was a pet project of former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab. Whether the Bill of Rights Bill will proceed given Raab’s resignation over bullying allegations is not yet clear. If it does, it will remove some protections included in the Human Rights Act.

    In addition, the Illegal Migration Bill seeks to limit the European Court of Human Rights’ role in adjudicating over British actions to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda. And the Government’s Troubles Bill, often called the legacy bill, puts an end to prosecutions and investigations into Troubles deaths in Northern Ireland.

    Removing human rights protections is of serious concern to lawyers, but is relevant to the daily lives of much of the population. Indeed, the failure of successive British governments to deliver the promised Northern Ireland Bill of Rights is blamed by the podcast interviewees for holding back our society in achieving greater progress towards social equality within NI.

    The podcast can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website.

    Longer versions of the three interviews are also available there.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Anger in the voluntary sector

    There was anger across Northern Ireland when the government’s funding allocations from the replacement for the European Social Fund were announced. Firstly, the announcement was made late morning on the very last day possible. And secondly, the level of funding from the replacement programme, the Shared Prosperity Fund, was much less than that lost from ESF. Many people felt this was not the promise the UK government made after Brexit.

    For people in Derry, this was regarded by some as a second blow. While the city did well from the first found of the Levelling-Up Fund, it got nothing from the second round – despite having the worst deprivation figures in NI, and one of the very worst in the whole of the UK.

    The second of the new series of Holywell Trust Conversations podcasts contains interviews with people in voluntary groups in Derry that have experienced the two programmes – both winners and losers – to ask them about their experiences and the impact of the decisions.

    While Derry got nothing from that second round of the Levelling-Up Fund, it actually did very well from that first round. Some £49m went into NI from the initial allocations, of which £16m was won for the Derry and Strabane council area. This was far more than to be expected from its share of the population.

    Criteria for the Levelling-Up Fund were projects that would cut crime in areas where it is worst; provide incomes for those who need it most; transform the economy by generating higher paid and higher skilled jobs; and attract new investment. Groups that obtained funding were a sports hub for boxing and snooker, that also contains football changing rooms; improvements to the village centre in Derg; and the Acorn City Farm on a derelict part of Derry’s largest central recreation area, St Columb’s Park.

    Success in that first round was in part the result of the council already having projects that were ready to go, with businesses cases prepared, and looking for funding. Shauna Kelpie of Acorn City Farm, discusses her experience of successfully bidding for Levelling-Up Fund money on the podcast.

    It was that context of first round success that explains Derry’s lack of success in the second round, when £71m was distributed across NI. That did not prevent some local people who bid into that second round from being very unhappy at being rejected, nor raising questions about how the government was implementing its criteria.

    But if there was unhappiness about the Levelling-Up Fund, that was nothing to the sheer anger felt across the voluntary sector about the results of the replacement of ESF by the Shared Prosperity Fund. Many groups that had been funded for years by ESF, delivering important projects, found themselves without continued funding and were shocked by the decisions. Some employees were told on the Friday that there was no job for them to come into on the following Monday.

    Catherine Barr of Derry’s Women’s Centre strongly criticised the bidding process as well as the decision, which means that some of its core services have now been lost. The government had told groups to bid in partnerships, and the proposal that involved local women’s groups and led by Derry Youth and Community Workshops was rejected. No explanation for the decision was provided by government.

    Charles Lamberton of Triax is equally critical of the process, even though Triax was successful in its bid for funding. They are providing a range of training and support services to people across the Derry and Strabane council area who are economically inactive.

    It is clear that while there is enormous anger at the decisions taken, the process undertaken by government departments has made the situation very much worse. Bidding processes began late, with decisions taken only at the very last moment. Nor were those decisions consistent with what many in the voluntary sector understood the criteria and level of funding to be. The result if a significant loss of key services, without obvious routes to replace them.

    The podcast is hosted on the Holywell Trust website.


    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.    

  • Belfast/Good Friday Agreement analysis opens new Holywell Trust Conversations series

    Conversations with key players in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement negotiations open a new series of podcasts from the peace and reconciliation charity, the Holywell Trust. Suitably, the new series is called the Holywell Trust Conversations, reflecting a more in-depth discussion of topics that are continuing to affect Northern Ireland, and especially the North West – where Holywell is located.

    The conversations in this opening podcast are with three central characters in the GFA negotiations – who have very different experiences, based on their varying roles. Avila Kilmurray was a founder of the Women’s Coalition, which came into the negotiations only after the elections that preceded the GFA. Paul Bew, Lord Bew, arrived even later, on the day of the final conclusion of the agreement. By contrast, Irish government official Ray Bassett had been heavily involved for years in multi-party negotiations that culminated in the GFA.

    It is worth remembering that bringing peace to NI had been a long-term project. It is easy to forget – as I had – that the initial British government statement that the UK state had no ‘strategic selfish or economic interest in Northern Ireland’ was actually made when Peter Brooke was secretary of state and Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. But Ray Bassett recalls that it was Tony Blair’s arrival as PM that was ‘like a spaceship arriving’ in transforming the atmosphere of the talks. He adds that it was only Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that really believed the negotiations would succeed.

    Paul Bew reflects that his role was to be a calm voice in David Trimble’s ear, reassuring him that the cross-border bodies would be administrative and did not presage a constitutional revolution. But Paul today expresses concern on how Brexit has created new uncertainties and anxieties that are reminiscent of the fears expressed by many at the time of the GFA.

    Avila Kilmurray recalls the significant role the Women’s Coalition made, and the support it received from the then secretary of state Mo Mowlam. It was the background of the members of the Women’s Coalition in community organisations that led to it being effective in demanding commitments not only to support women in society, but also to reconciliation, victims, anti-poverty measures, integrated education and for both the Civic Forum and a Bill of Rights in the final agreement. Not that all these commitments have even now been fulfilled.

    The three interviewees make some similar points. There is no affection for the St Andrews Agreement, which made significant amendments to the GFA, but an expression of appreciation and affection for David Ervine and his role in providing support for David Trimble in bringing enough unionists over the line for the GFA to have cross-community support. They all applaud the calm role of George Mitchell, the perfect talks chair.

    An explanation of the core elements of the GFA and the subsequent major agreements – St Andrews, Stormont House, Fresh Start and New Decade New Approach – is also included in the podcast.

    The podcast is hosted on the Holywell Trust website, along with full length conversations with Avila Kilmurray, Paul Bew and Ray Bassett. All the Holywell Conversations podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Boris Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron must accept part of the responsibility for the continuing “gridlock” of politics in Northern Ireland, through their failure to engage in the political process here, argues former Labour secretary of state Peter Hain. He also allocates blame to Conservative secretaries of state, with the exception of Julian Smith.

    Hain says that prime ministers must recognise that their role includes strong engagement with the Northern Ireland parties, in order to keep political progress on track. “You have to be hands-on,” he says of the PMs and secretaries of state. “I think David Cameron and his successors made a basic error in thinking that the job was done when they took office in 2010. And he did not - nor did Theresa May and certainly not Boris Johnson - have the constant focus that Northern Ireland needs, building relationships with all the key political leaders and others, and being there – not on a fly in, fly out basis, or the odd Zoom call for half an hour here and there – but actually constantly engaged.”

    He adds that the “unravelling of Stormont” and the crisis over the Northern Ireland Protocol have been the “result” of what he terms the “neglect” by those prime ministers and their secretaries of state. He adds that the UK government must act as the “honest broker” when it comes to Northern Ireland, “but that hasn’t been the case” because of the Conservatives’ relationship with unionism, especially the DUP. “The government aligned itself with one side of the divide,” he continues.

    Hain is equally critical of the DUP, and especially the leadership of Arlene Foster, in not moving society and politics forward in recent years. “She didn’t seem to have the ability, or self-confidence, or the leadership calibre to actually lead from the front, and not always do her party’s bidding in a kind of lapdog fashion.”

    He adds that Northern Ireland’s politics require leaders who will “lead from the front”, and believes that Jeffrey Donaldson may have that skill and capacity. Hain hopes that Jeffrey Donaldson will prove to be a leader who can take the political process forward, rather than backwards. He calls on the DUP to see Sinn Fein as partners in government, “rather than the devil incarnate”. It is possible to work together, without the two parties liking each other, he stresses.

    “Northern Ireland’s political leaders have to decide if they are focused on the future, or trapped by the past,” says Hain. In the interview he also discusses how to make cross-party progress on the reform of the health and education systems, and the role of citizens’ assemblies in creating a strong voice for civic society in Northern Ireland.

    This is the 18th and final episode in the third series of Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts. This follows interviews with the leaders of the five political parties in government in Northern Ireland; Simon Hoare MP, who is chair of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; and sector experts, who have assessed the need for reform of our public services. All the past podcasts are available on the Holywell Trust website.

    The Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

  • Political legacy of distrust cannot be wished away, says Donaldson

    The distrust between Northern Ireland’s political parties remains a legacy of the conflict and cannot be wished away or ignored, says DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. He adds that the events of the Bobby Storey funeral and commemorations of dead members of the Provisional IRA mean that the Troubles remain a continuing source of tension between the largest parties. He was speaking in the latest Holywell Trust Forward Together podcast.

    Jeffrey argues that not only are the British government’s legacy proposals unacceptable, but that addressing victims’ unresolved trauma and anger in relation to Troubles’ events is essential to make political progress.

    He discusses public services reform, indicating the DUP’s support for the Bengoa health care proposals. He believes that a consensus between the main parties on health care reform is possible, even though it will lead to significant changes in the roles of some local hospitals and health facilities through the centralisation of some specialist acute services.

    Jeffrey is more cautious in relation to reform of the school system, restating his party’s strong support for grammar schools. He suggests that more support is instead needed for non-selective schools to raise examination and skills outcomes. He indicates support for the sharing of facilities and teaching between schools, rather than educational integration.

    While Jeffrey supports the use of citizens’ assemblies, he stresses that their role must be to assist politicians as they make decisions, rather than to replace politicians’ decision-making role.

    The Holywell Trust Forward Together podcasts are funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme.

    Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.