Doors closed on integrated education

Around 7% of children here attend an integrated school. Ninety-three percent do not.

Ballyhackett Primary school in Castlerock will close in a few months’ time. Pupil numbers are low and an application to become the area’s only integrated primary school has been turned down by the Education Authority, the Controlled Schools Support Council and by the Education Minister Peter Weir .

The Good Friday Agreement (1998) was very clear about the responsibility on the Assembly and the Executive to promote integrated education, yet it is almost impossible to find one sustained initiative taken since then that has contributed to that objective.

On the contrary, the DUP and Sinn Fein, in particular, but supported by other parties, have developed a ‘shared’ education programme designed to muddy the educational waters, give the impression of progress toward integration but in fact consolidating the divisions which already exist.

Integrated education should not be the call of last resort, and falling pupil numbers should not be the motivating factor towards an integrated system. But the opportunity offered by Ballyhackett Primary school could, and should, have been taken to demonstrate a commitment to integrated education. It was not and it was no accident.

It is thought that around 7% of children here attend an integrated school. Ninety-three percent do not. That is a figure and a situation which satisfies many groups, political parties, individuals and vested interests. It’s also a major factor in the continued division of this society and the maintenance of two sectarian power blocs.

For as long as those vested interests go unchallenged there will be more Balyhacketts and even less integrated education.

Stealth and health – the next big battle

There’s a lot we can learn from the treatment of our health and social care staff and the derisory 1% pay award being considered for front line workers.

Without the NHS, and without the professionalism and dedication of its staff, the outcome of the Covid pandemic, horrendous as it has been, would have been much worse.

The work they have done and the results they have achieved, including the outstanding roll out of the vaccination programme, has been acknowledged in popular support and sustained applause.

But despite their rhetoric and the public commitments to supporting the NHS that respect and adulation has not been matched by government actions.

That’s not entirely surprising. From the earliest days of the NHS the Tory party,  in particular, has been committed to undermining and dismantling the health service as we know it, as it has with much of the welfare state initiatives brought in after the second world war.

Sentimentality, it seems, plays no part in strategic projects like privatising healthcare.

You won’t find it in their election manifestos, it wont be admitted publicly, but  privatising the NHS is a policy that sits comfortably with Tory ideology and with the mindsets of many local parties – including those who claim otherwise.

Privatisation by stealth is probably the best description of what is happening and ironically the pressures of the pandemic and the way in which the NHS has responded has left it more vunerable.

Up to £10bn is being made available in England to buy treatment from private providers so that the NHS can clear the backlog of diagnostic tests and treatments that have built up during the Covid-19 pandemic.

More than half a million people in England now have their primary healthcare provided by private GP consortiums funded by American health insurance companies.

Hiving off NHS services bit by bit to the private sector is creeping privatisation. It is privatisation by stealth.

The second line of threat is equally covert. The longer that waiting lists become, and that is a particular problem in Northern Ireland, the more that people with the means to pay for private healthcare will do so.

Deliberately underfunding the NHS has the effect of accelerating privatisation.

Refusing to recognise the contribution and worth of its staff, by offering a 1% pay award for example, will further demoralise a dedicated workforce and contribute to a potential workforce exodus to better paid and less stressful employment.

Overcoming Covid 19 is a battle that will be won eventually with the help of the NHS and its staff. The battle to save the NHS may prove to be an even bigger task. We should prepare for that now.

Party elects new President

Party President Cllr. Ted Tynan

Cllr Ted Tynan has been elected President of the Workers Party at a special on-line delegate conference held at the weekend.

More than two thirds of Party branches took part in the special conference called to elect a new Central Committee as well as a new Party President.
Councillor Tynan is a life long member of the Party and was first elected to Cork City Council in 2009.

Ted’s nomination  for the post of  Party President was endorsed unanimously by Party delegates from Dublin, Meath, Cork and from branches throughout Northern Ireland.

Speaking after the meeting Cllr Tynan said,

“I am humbled by the strength and the depth of support I have received and extend my sincere thanks to all those Party members and branches for placing  their trust in me. I will not let them down”.

” These are particularly difficult times for working people and their families. In addition to the problems of the ongoing pandemic we are faced with major political, social and  economic assaults on the lives and livelihoods of working people throughout this country. As we have seen recently we are also faced with a rising tide of British and Irish nationalism and all the misery, false dawns and suffering that that inflicts”.

“It has never been more important than it is now to have a vibrant, confident and committed party of the working class. Developing and delivering that objective is the task we have set ourselves.  There will be setbacks and many will seek to divert and dilute our struggle, but we will succeed and we will transform this society. We will overcome the exploitation, profiteering and plundering by the capitalist system and build a socialist society run by and in the sole interests of the working class”.

Mental Health: further failures not an option

A few weeks ago, the Workers Party made a formal submission to the Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘Mental Health Strategy 2021-31’.

One of the key points which we kept re-iterating was that previous mental health strategies had failed, and failed again. 

They failed to confront many of the core causes, failed to address the provision of services and failed to meet the needs of patients and clients.

Anti-depressant prescription rates in Northern Ireland are significantly higher than the rest of the UK. The number of antidepressants issued here has risen by 25% in five years. In the past year alone, more than 3 million prescriptions were handed out – 8,500 a day on average.

There is also a worrying increase in the number of anti-depressants being prescribed in the Republic of Ireland.

In part, this is accounted for by the increasing levels of mental ill health but also is a consequence of a lack of alternative treatments, particularly counselling services, talking therapies and early intervention.

Volumes of research have been produced linking poverty, poor housing, employment environmental and other social issues to poor and deteriorating mental health. 

Yet mental health is still considered, almost exclusively, as a medical condition. Only when some of the major causes of mental ill health are factored in to a joined-up response strategy will we even begin to make progress.

Additional to the above factors we are also living with a legacy of mental health issues going back decades. This is now cross generational and cannot and should not be treated with medication alone. The impact of the pandemic on mental health is only just beginning to emerge.

The funding of mental health services in Northern Ireland is currently 27% lower than all other areas of the UK. No mental health strategy can ignore that fact. Funding must be made available; it must be ring fenced and it must be directed at the causes as well as the treatments for mental health. If it is not, we will be back in ten years time discussing another failed strategy and another generation will have been condemned to unnecessary suffering, exclusion and worse.

Bad moon rising?

The warning signs are already clear, the well-rehearsed arguments are converging and the battle lines have been drawn. We are facing a very difficult, and potentially very dangerous 12 month period.

Politics in Northern Ireland are dominated and divided by nationalism: pro-British and pro-Irish versions: both are toxic and both are destructive

In recent days we have seen protocols, polls and policing, used to fuel claim and counter claim, building on existing division and further polarising and dividing the community.

The pro-British nationalism of the DUP, and others, using ill thought out, but confrontational, strategies to hype up the threat to the union, and the appalling, unapologetic arrogance and contempt of Sinn Fein, have set the ground rules for the coming months and for the run in to next year’s Assembly elections.

We are now beginning to see the outworking of those strategies taking shape in the form of  riots and street violence. The fear must be that worse is yet to come.

In the face of the basest forms of tribal politics, and the potential threat they pose, the need for a united, coherent and focussed working class response has never been more urgent.

In a little over twelve months’ time there will be an Assembly election. Much of the recent tribalism, political posturing and grandstanding is aimed at laying the groundwork for that election campaign. When that spills over into the streets in the form of riots, disturbances and attacks, as we are already witnessing, it will not be by accident but by deliberate design.

The nationalism of the DUP, Sinn Fein and others demands that the tribal stakes are constantly raised and raised again. If that means some teenagers and young people from working class communities end up in prison, injured or worse then so be it. Of course, both parties will be the first to condemn the violence, the bloodshed and the community strife, while in the same breath calculating how much they had gained from it and how much further they need to go.

The only response to this deadly and downward nationalist spiral is the collective voice and action of a united working class, committed to and focused on a political and social agenda which will drive a progressive wedge into the heart of political life here.

That measure must involve trade unionists, working people, progressive and anti-sectarian elements, principled parties of the left and, importantly, forward thinking members of the media and other professions. It is not too late to openly reject the politics and consequences of nationalism. Nor is it too late to call them out. However, the day for howling at the moon has long gone.