Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The none-too-popular issue of Father's Rights

The issue of the rights of Fathers, especially those who are unmarried and separated, is one that becomes prominent for short periods of times every couple of years. I have to say, its not an issue that I spend too much concentration on for the most part.
However, in recent weeks, and by co-incidence, the issue has been raised with me by three separate constituents. In one instance a man approached me. He is the father of a three year old girl whom he has seen only four times since he and her mother split up when the baby was around two months. He pays an agreed sum into the mothers bank account each month. The mother now has a new partner and they and the young child live in Munster and good luck to them.
The mothers attitude is simple and probably understandable. The girls father can see her whenever he likes but he must come to her and sort out his own accommodation etc. For one reason or another he has rarely made the trip and when he has he feels like a complete outsider in the child's' life. He has spoken to a solicitor but because he lives in a one-bedroom flat his legal advice is that he won't win the right to have his daughter stay with him. He is on the social housing waiting list in County Monaghan but because there is no legal agreement in place the odds on him being offered a house suitable for his daughter to stay with him are slim.
In the other two cases it was the children's paternal grandparents who contacted me. They love their grandchildren and yet never, and I literally mean never, get to see them. In one instance the father had negotiated the right to keep his child every second weekend. However, on one occasion, at the suggestion of his own mother he let his son stay with his Granny while he went for a few pints. You would think that everyone was a winner. The wee lad was spoilt rotten and Granny was in her element. But, when the boys mother was told what had happened she withdrew from the previous agreement and now the boy and his father have four hours together every second Sunday.
In the third case another Granny approached me. Her son and his partner have just separated. His wife and their two children are living in the family home. He continues to pay half of the mortgage and household bills and after he has paid his own rent he barely has enough to purchase food. Possibly because the separation is a new one and emotions are running high his access to his children is often denied. He is currently (or rather Granny is) pursuing every legal avenue available to resolve the situation.
In each of these cases there are decent fathers who only want to play an active part in their children's lives. Indeed, I have no doubt that in each case the children's' mothers are also decent people who love their children dearly.
I also know that there are many separated fathers who don't step up to the mark in the care of their children and the only person stopping them is themselves. I know many mothers who desperately want their children to spend time with their father but he's never about.
Separated Fathers have responsibilities that they should live up to.
But, they should also have legally protected rights.
As it stands they don't have. In the case of an unmarried separated father their rights are almost nill. They have no say in naming the child - it is most often the case that the mother will give the child her surname without consulting the father (I'm not saying that the child should take one name or another, only that it should be an agreed position in cases where the father wishes to participate in the child's life). In some instances the child is registered without the fathers name on the birth cert without his knowledge.
But these are in fact, only minor issues. The real difficulties arise when a father is denied or given severally limited access to their children. This not only infringes on the fathers rights but also the children's.
There is a gross inequality at play in the current legislation. Last week I wrote to the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, asking him to address this inequality. I am not too confident.
The fact is that most men affected by this injustice are fighting their own private battles and it appears that most are slow to make a public stand on the matter. The place where they should be getting support - i.e. from human rights and equality campaigners - appears to be quite on the subject. I suspect that there are so many areas where women have yet to achieve full equality that some people feel it doesn't merit campaigning for the one huge area for which men are at the receiving end.
The fact is that inequality is inequality no matter who it is directed at and where it exists we each have a responsibility to tackle it head on. It's no less than children deserve.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Presentation to An Bord Pleanála Oral Hearing into North-South Interconnector

Yesterday, Wednesday 3rd June, Sinn Féin made our submission to An Bord Pleanála Oral hearing on the North-South Interconnector. EirGrid & NIE are planning to erect high voltage 400kv power-lines, and associated massive pylons, through the heart of counties Monaghan, Cavan, Meath, Armagh and Tyrone. The An Bord Pleanála hearings are examining the planning application as it pertains to the three counties on this side of the border.

Sinn Féin's position is cystal clear. The current application should be rejected and the project should be undergrounded. There is amble evidence to show that this is feasible, although it is likely to be a more expensive option (how much more expensive is a matter of considerable debate). Our party will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with those communities who are engaged in a mammoth battle with EirGrid and the forces of the state.
Unfortunately the government have assisted EirGrid through the introduction of the Strategic Infrastructure Act which removes local authorities from the planning process on issues such as this. To their eternal shame Fine Gael supported the government in the passing of this legislation. The Sinn Féin TD's voted against as did the Green Party (while in opposition of course; ironically it is a Green Minister, Eamon Ryan, who has the power to direct EirGrid to underground the project but he has refused to do so).

So, yesterday, we took the opportunity to address the Bord Pleanála inspectorate and make our case against the current proposal and in favour of undergrounding. Our delegation was led by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and also consisted of myself and fellow Councillors Jackie Crowe and Noel Keelan. We have also secured the technical support of Simon Allen, an expert in the field of electricity provision and a well respected expert in particularly on the undergrounding of electricity cables.

(Outside the Oral Hearings at the Nuremore Hotel, Carrickmacross prior to presenting the SF submission were L-R Cllr. Noel Keelan, mise, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD, Simon Allen and Cllr. Jackie Crowe)

Caoimhghín, speaking mostly trí Gaeilge, acted as main spokesperson and dealt specifially with the issue of land valuations and their impact as a result of the development. Noel Keelan spoke of the implications for the tourism development and the visual impact consequences. Jackie Crowe spoke extensively on the health concerns that many people have regarding overhead high-voltage power lines. I spoke regarding the environmental concerns of those of us opposed to the development (the text of my remarks are below). Simon Allen gave a powerful, fact-based contribution outlining EirGrid's failures to properly investigate the prospect of undergrounding the interconnector. He also explained how, scientifically, it was feasibly possible to underground such projects.

I was incredibly proud of the Sinn Féin presentation. It was professional, well researched and based of scientific fact. I hope it has made an impact.

I would like to say that we stole the show at yesterdays hearings. However, that honour belongs to Jim McNally, a resident along the route of the proposed interconnector. Jim made a passionate and detailed case against the project. Put simply he was outstanding - Maith Thú Jim!

It is important to acknowledge the huge community effort that has been invested against the plans of EirGrid and NIE throughout the five affected counties. The companies seriously underestimated the level of opposition they would encounter. At often huge personal cost, financial and otherwise, community representatives have challenged and matched the unlimited resources of the state's apparatus. We can only hope that An Bord Pleanála will do the right thing from a planning perspective and reject EirGrid's flawed planning application.

One way or another, the communities involved can be assured of the full support of Sinn Fein - the only party to have adopted, as policy, the position that all such electricity networks should be undergrounded.

My remarks to the oral hearing:

I wish to begin by thanking the inspector and the board for affording my party colleagues and I the opportunity to address this oral hearing.

I wish to also record my party’s view once again that developments such as this that will, one way or another, have a significant developmental impact on any county, should be subject to the planning process in that particular county. In this case Counties Monaghan, Meath and Cavan will be, in Sinn Féin’s view, subjected to development which will have a significant negative impact across an array of barometers that have been outlined in our submission and those of other organisations. Therefore I want to reiterate our opposition to the Strategic Infrastructure Act.

Nevertheless we are where we are and I am hopeful that An Bord Pleanála will accept the overwhelming arguments that have been articulated by united communities along the entire route of this proposed development, in opposition to the erection of overhead high voltage power lines and associated pylons.

From June 2008 until June 2009 I had the honour of being the Mayor of County Monaghan. In that capacity I visited almost every community in this county at one point or another. I can tell this forum, without fear of contradiction, that there is no issue that unites the people of Monaghan more than this. This is particularly the case in the South and Mid Monaghan areas that would be most directly impacted upon if An Bord Pleanála were to grant planning permission based on EirGrid’s current application.

A question of democracy has arisen. Monaghan County Council has unanimously adopted numerous motions in opposition to this application and in favour of the underground option for the inter-connector; so too has every municipal authority in the county; likewise every Oireachtas member from this constituency has issued statements in support of the local communities. Therefore the question must be asked; can and will An Bord Pleanála override the entire democratically elected opinion from any given county simply on an interpretation of government policy which in my mind, based on the statements of government Oireachtas members locally, is vague to say the least on the issue of underground versus overhead development of electricity networks.

I would like to deal broadly with the potential Environmental Impact of the proposed development.

The EIS presented by EirGrid has been described as containing ‘limited information’ by senior Monaghan County Council planners on matters of such importance as justification for the chosen route of the inter-connector. If the EIS fails to satisfy senior planners with regard to such a central matter then how can it possibly satisfy local communities with regard to wider Environmental concerns?

It is Sinn Féin’s contention that this application contravenes vital aspects of the County Development Plans of the three affected counties in this state. I want to refer to elements included in the Monaghan County Development Plan because that is the one that I am familiar with.

Policy ENV 2 of the Monaghan County Development Plan states that it shall be a priority of the Planning Process to “Protect the landscapes and natural environments of the county by ensuring that any new developments in designated sensitive rural landscapes do not detrimentally impact on the character, integrity, distinctiveness or scenic value of the area”.

Policy ENV 3 states that the Planning process will “Sustain, conserve, manage and enhance the landscape diversity, character and quality of the County for the benefits of current and future generations”.

There can be no doubt that a Pylon network which will literally divide County Monaghan in two will contravene both of these policies. The entire landscape character of County Monaghan will be changed forever. The outcome will be similar in Counties Cavan and Meath and indeed in Armagh and Tyrone if the NIE proposal were to be approved.

You will know from the Monaghan County Council submission that the local authority considers the environmental impact upon landscapes such as Drumlins, Upper Farmland, Lakelands and other uplands to be in many cases significant. In many instances the Sensitivity of Local Landscape affected by this proposed development has been characterised as ‘High’ while the significance of the visual impact of the development has been characterised as ‘Major’ in many areas.

The proposed development will directly and adversely affect the settings of at least eleven lakes and their environs in County Monaghan alone. As well as that, in a number of instances the development is proposed to be located between the road and the lake contravening a further policy, ENV 15 of the Monaghan County Development Plan.

You will have learned from the Monaghan County Council submission that the EIS has failed to properly assess the impact of the proposed development upon bio diversity in the vicinity of the proposed development and consequent mitigation measures have not been included. A statement, which was prepared by council officials (and not elected representatives) states: “It is apparent from the lack of detail provided, in particular for flora and ecology, that no botanical surveys were undertaken on the ground.

And “the habitat classifications provided on the maps and in the flora and fauna sections have not been elaborated upon, and are at a very general level. Cutover bog is often used as a broad term, although most of these sites are mosaic habitats with transition mire and secondary fen vegetation which should be recorded. Lakes are recorded as simply lakes with no reference to their fringing and surrounding habitats.

And: “no species lists for any site are provided. No detail on protected flora is provided”.

And alarmingly: “Some of the detail regarding “status” of sites has been incorrectly transcribed from Monaghan County Council reports, to give a lower importance to sites. For example Corlea Bog, page 99 vol 2B, is stated to have been identified in the Fen Survey of Monaghan “….as a diverse site of high local value. This is a C status.” The Monaghan Fen Survey actually rated this site to be of National Importance, of B status. This cutover bog site (7.7ha) has 3.4ha of transition mire, and a species protected by the Flora Protection Order”.

What does it say about the professionalism of an EIS that a point of such environmental significance could be “mistaken”? This point, as much as any other, in my view, warrants the dismissal and refusal of this application.

But there are other environmental concerns which have been reported to this oral hearing which we in Sinn Féin share. Included among these are issues relating to the noise impact and pollution, lack of information relating to displaced material associated with this development and its impact on waste management considerations, the impact upon surface and groundwater and the lack of a flood risk assessment in the EIS.

I want to put on the record Sinn Féin’s endorsement of the section in the Monaghan County Council submission entitled “comments by elected members”.

In that submission prepared by Monaghan County Council the elected members identified 25 policies in the Monaghan County Development Plan which this proposed development contravenes. 21 of those policies are in the chapter of the development entitled “Environment and Heritage”.

If any individual or organisation in Counties Cavan, Monaghan or Meath submitted an application to their local authority that contravened a single policy they would encounter severe difficulties in the planning process regardless of the so-called ‘greater good’ that they would be accommodating. But if they contravened several policies of a County Development Plan they would be refused in record time. If they had the nerve to appeal to An Bord Pleanála they would, I don’t doubt, again be refused.

An Bord Pleanála should do the right thing according to proper and sustainable planning in this instance. They should reject this development and send EirGrid back to their experts to draft a new application that considers, in a meaningful way, the environmental impact of their proposals. An Bord Pleanála should also, in my view, recommend that EirGrid give serious consideration to the option of undergrounding the inter-connector, as I don’t believe they have thus far.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Israeli Ambassador gets his answer

On Wednesday 27th January I received a phone call from a senior council official. He wanted to know what I would think of the council hosting a reception for the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, at his request. "I think you know what my reaction would be" I replied "I would oppose it and if it were to happen we would mount a protest." I took it from his response that it wouldn't be happening.

Then, at the close of business on Thursday 28th January I received another call from the council - this time to invite me to a civic reception for the said ambassador, Zion Evrony, first thing the next morning. It appears that the Mayor of Carrickmacross Town Council, Mary Kerr Conlon, felt that it would be 'rude' to refuse such a request by a diplomat. Initially I gave Mary the benefit of the doubt. I thought perhaps she didn't understand the record of the Israeli government that Mr. Evrony represents. So I immediately called her and outlined the huge insult that such a reception would be to all of those people in Carrickmacross and further afield who are continually horrified by the actions of the Israeli government, particularly in the Palestinian territories. For some reason she wasn't for turning - she was insistent that the visit would take place despite the fact that she had no mandate from the council to host it.

Considering the short notice it is quite likely that Mary Kerr Conlon believed that there wouldn't be time for Sinn Féin to organise any sort of a credible protest. Thankfully she was wrong. A late night text message ensured that over thirty people were gathered outside of the council offices the next morning. Most of those people were from Carrick and many had taken the morning off work to attend. We were also grateful that a few people made that extra effort to travel. Fellow Sinn Féin Councillors Seán Conlon (Cathaoirleach of Monaghan Town Council), Peter Grimes (Castleblayney) and Sheila McKenna (North Monaghan) all came along. My staunch aunt Ann Kelly and her husband Tom travelled down from Dublin. I was also pleased that a former Workers Party Chairperson of Carrickmacross Town Council Francie O'Donoghue came along to show his support.

Suffice to say that Zion Evrony received the welcome he deserved. A dignified silent protest met him (and about 12 Gardaí who accompanied him) at the road adjacent to the council offices. Myself and Councillor Noel Keelan addressed him at the door of the council offices and informed him that regardless of whatever pleasantries the Mayor intend to greet him with his government were not, in fact welcome in Carrickmacross. I asked him to get in his car and return to his embassy. We then entered the council offices and made a formal, and perhaps heated, complaint to the Mayor and then left the chambers once more.

When the Ambassador was leaving we again informed him that the actions of his government were unacceptable to the people of Carrickmacross. We issued this statement after the protest.

Since then I am told that Zion Evrony wrote to my party leader calling on him to condemn my actions and those of the others who protested that morning. I don't think its a surprise that Gerry Adams did no such thing - Maith thú Gerry!

So then there was the political fall-out. Since the event I have received a fair bit of correspondence from Israeli supporters, mostly Irish. To give them their dues they are a committed bunch that will defend Israel to the last. Some of their comments though show a hatred towards anyone who does not agree with them that is unsettling. We've also had interesting media reports on the protest; This one is typical.

Carrickmacross Town Council met last Friday. I attempted to raise the matter and it took an almerciful shouting match with the Mayor before she allowed me to speak. I proposed that the page in the 'distinguished visitors book' which Zion Evrony had signed be removed. I further proposed that the council write to the Israeli embassy stating that their representatives would not be welcome to return to Carrickmacross Town Council until such time as their government acted in accordance with UN resolutions and International Law.

I was nervous about putting the vote to the meeting in case it failed to secure a majority and in which case the Mayor and her supporters would portray that as a vindication of her actions. However not to have a vote recorded in the minutes and to allow the page to remain in our visitors book would, I believed, forever sully the name and reputation of the council I am proud to have been a member of since 1999.

There are nine members of Carrickmacross Town Council. Obviously myself and Noel Keelan were going to vote in favour of my proposal. And I will be forever grateful to Councillors Catherine Martin and Kristina Jankaitiene of the Green Party and Padraig McNally of Fianna Fáil who all supported the motion. The other Fianna Fáil member, PJ O'Hanlon and the three Fine Gael members voted against.

But the motion was carried. Carrickmacross Town Council has redeemed itself and the Israeli Ambassadors' PR stunt has backfired - Zion Evrony has got his answer from our little town in South County Monaghan.