Thursday, 26 March 2015

Coastal Pathway success at Seahill

New Boardwalk at Seahill
I welcome the significant progress achieved by contractors who are building a new boardwalk to replace to the steep Seahill steps along the North Down Coastal Path. Official opening is due to occur on Monday 30 March 2015. 

After years of lobbying by myself and others I am delighted to see this alternative route created, bypassing what was the most difficult stretch of the North Down Coastal Path. With work continuing apace during difficult weather conditions over the Winter period final completion of this vital link along with the North Down Coastal Path is now in sight. Rather than requiring walkers, runners or others to tackle the old steep steps the new boardwalk will make passage a scenic stress free journey whilst the sea quietly flows beneath.

Council have advised that whilst official opening is planned for Monday 30 March "a small number of associated civil engineering works to be carried out after the Easter weekend. These works will not hinder the public from using the route and are largely related to reinstatement of the surrounding grass and rock areas."

Focus can now turn to seeking funding for upgrade of other sections identified in the report I requested in late 2014. With only a few sections now left requiring upgrade North Down faces prospect of having our own unique Greenway running from Belfast to Orlock near Groomsport.

I am extremely grateful to all involved to helped ensure delivery of this project which helps make North Down an even better and more healthier place to live, work or visit. Whilst walking and running is permitted along the entire route of the current Coastal Path I would urge everyone to respect shared nature of the path with cyclists limiting their speed and dismounting where requested along some of the narrower sections to ensure safety of all users.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Let’s light up Millisle to Donaghadee Roadway

I am calling upon the Department for Regional Development to re-consider their decision not to light up all of the Millisle to Donaghadee roadway after raising the issue with Minister Danny Kennedy. I raised the issue after being contacted by constituents seeking a fully illuminated route between Millisle to Donaghadee to enable walking, cycling and running at night.

As someone who values the outdoors and physical exercise I am acutely aware benefits of living in Holywood, Bangor or other major urban areas which permit walking, running, cycling and other sports day and night due to street lighting. I was therefore keen to progress request from constituents for Millisle to Donaghadee road to get a few extra street lights to enable safe passage between the village and town.

Whilst a significant amount of the road has Street Lighting a small 1km section does not have Street Lighting and is very dark at night. This section of pavement is also of relatively poor quality and in need to resurfacing. This makes passage by pedestrians, runners and cyclists difficult, inhibiting people from undertaking physical exercise routes, especially during the winter when darkness arrives early. By providing street lighting and pavement surfacing along this 1km section would allow runners, walkers and others to complete a significant circuit involving both Millisle and Donaghadee thereby enabling more active lifestyles and also enable people to easily travel between both places in greater safety.

I am extremely disappointed that Minister Kennedy has refused request for provision of street lighting along this short section plus associated pavement resurfacing but hope that the Department for Regional Development will re-consider this small initiative for funding in the medium to long term. By providing about 16 street lights positive opportunities would be opened up to link Millisle & Donaghadee and help deliver more healthy and active lifestyles. 

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Forward, not Back - 2015 Conference Speech

Alliance Party Conference Saturday 14 March 2015, Abridged President's Speech
A céad míle fáilte to the Alliance Party’s 45th Annual Conference

The Alliance Party’s conference is an annual opportunity to celebrate our achievements to date and discuss how we advance onwards.

Since foundation and our first Annual Conference on 27 March 1971 in the Ulster Hall society in Northern Ireland has changed beyond recognition.

In the current situation, it is understandable that people feel despair and frustration at the political process but it is important to take time to stand back and understand the journey undertaken and the road ahead. 

In the sixties, people marched for civil rights, in America, Northern Ireland and beyond.

In the seventies, government raised the profile and dignity of women through the Sex Discrimination Act and other legislation.

In the eighties, former Alliance Leader Bob Cooper was at the forefront of ensuring workplaces respected religious and political diversity.

The status of lesbian and gay people also started to transform in the 1980s from criminalisation because of who we love towards full and equal citizenship, hastened by the election of a new Labour Government in 1997.
In the nineties we also managed to craft tentative peace and power sharing in Northern Ireland with ceasefires in 1994, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and devolution intermittently from 1999 to 2002 and then 2007 onwards.    

Things have changed. No longer do we see protests against ecumenical church services nor, as we have seen this week, is it acceptable to disbar and discriminate against people with disabilities.

Many of us now work together with people of different religious belief.

Nationalities have also changed with Northern Ireland enjoying a mix of people identifying as British, Irish, Northern Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian, Indian, Portuguese, Chinese and many more.

We’re all minorities now in a complex and diverse Northern Ireland.

These are the facts. Society has changed. Social attitudes have also changed. But sadly, few of our politicians have. It’s time for our political system to catch-up. 

The Alliance Party welcomes and embraces the new Northern Ireland emerging from the shadow of our past and has no time for old, out dated, discriminatory attitudes irrelevant to modern day society.

That’s why you won’t find any sectarian or homophobic jokes about yogurts or cakes at our conference. Nor will you find talk of equality being used as trojan horse.

Such language and attitudes have no place in modern day Northern Ireland, never mind a major political party.

The time to end sectarian politics and successive political crises has long since passed.

That’s why Alliance exists. We seek to build a better future where we move forward building upon the gains achieved towards a new society where we live, work, socialise and learn together, moving forward, not back.

As Alliance Party President I am extremely grateful for the opportunities to serve the people and the party, whether today as President or since 2010 as a Councillor or in recent times as Mayor and now as Westminster candidate for North Down.

These opportunities have provided me with fantastic scope to build an open and inclusive future, champion the environment and open up our political institutions.

But yet, when other politicians are given similar opportunities they select a much more negative approach choosing instead to criticise the cost of division and the duplication of services but then vote to send millions to an unsustainable and divided teacher training system. 

But it doesn’t end there. Others, speak one day about tough budgets and the need to make savings but then support nightly protests at Twaddell costing us over £1million per month whilst community relations deteriorate and people suffer.

When other parties assume positions of responsibility, they take the rights but not the responsibilities. Happy to play fast and loose with Northern Ireland’s economy and public finances.

Instead of political leadership, they treat legislation on welfare reform as a political tool to win votes.

When legal rulings don’t suit their own personal prejudices money is wasted on fruitless legal battles.

Northern Ireland can be better than this.

Alliance in government has shown what real political leadership looks like. Governing for everyone, speaking up for everyone, delivering for everyone, moving Northern Ireland forward not back.

I’m proud to be associated with Alliance and our leadership team, headed up by David Ford as our Leader, Naomi Long MP as our Deputy Leader and Stephen Farry as Employment and Learning Minister.

5 years ago people from across East Belfast chose change and elected Naomi as their MP.

Let’s repeat this positive step forward and ensure Naomi’s re-election by signing up at the stall outside to help the campaign fight ahead.

Just think about the powerful message this will send when Naomi is re-elected on 7 May this year.

Northern Ireland moving forward, not back.

Today we send a clear message, "Yes She Can".

On the 50th Anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday March last weekend, Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader who helped organise the voting rights marches in Selma, said, “When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change … Be hopeful. Be optimistic.”

Today is the day when, despite the grim appearance of politics here, we remind ourselves of that.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Muir delivers greater transparency for planning decisions

I have managed to deliver changes in how planning applications will be dealt with by our new Council when powers are transferred from Department for the Environment to Ards and North Down Borough Council on 1 April 2015.

With planning powers transferring to local Councils on 1 April 2015 it’s vital that appropriate procedures are put in place to ensure planning decisions are made in an open, transparent and accountable manner. I am therefore delighted that the new Council unanimously agreed that it is no longer acceptable to have Councillors simply raising their arm and no voting records retained detailing who voted for or against planning applications. Only if you attend the meeting do you see how Councillors have voted by raising their arm.

If a vote is taken on a Planning Application names of Councillors voting for, against and abstaining will now automatically be recorded in the minutes without exception. Minutes of the meeting will record voting record of Councillors on each issue for public review and scrutiny by members of the public. Without the change secured a recorded vote detailing how each Councillor voted would have only occurred if a Councillor requested such before members were given the opportunity to raise their hands for or against. This inevitably requires Councillors to predict if a division vote will occur. 

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Health Minister should end Bangor Hospital bed closure shambles - Muir

Whilst I welcome decision made late last year to retain the Minor Injuries Unit at Bangor Community Hospital the decision to proceed with closure of the 20 bed GP unit was short sighted and ill thought out. 

Fear that decision to retain the Minor Injuries Unit would overshadow closure of the 20 bed unit was thankfully tackled by Bangor resident Eleanor Wilson who has successfully challenged the decision in court. We are now left in the current shambles with unit closed, declaration this was unlawful due to lack of consultation but closure to remain whilst an ambiguous consultation is conducted to decide whether doors remain permanently closed.

It’s about time Minister for Health Jim Wells MLA got a grip of this situation, showed his commitment to Transforming your Care and stepped in to secure Bangor Hospital’s future including the 20 bed unit which is of equal value alongside the Minor Injuries Unit. Care in a local surrounding is much more important and value for money than increasing pressure on the already strained Ulster Hospital.

DUP again block transparency on political donations

Yet again the DUP have voted against transparency on political donations by voting against a motion I presented at North and Ards District Shadow Council Governance Committee last Thursday night which called on the Secretary of State to end the anonymity for individuals making large donations to political parties. DUP Councillors present did not speak to explain their position and sat in silence whilst debate and vote occured. The motion will now go the full shadow Council early next month.

Donations over £7,500 from a single source to a political party are made public in the rest of the UK; however in Northern Ireland this information is not currently published. Naomi Long secured an amendment at Westminster in 2013 that will mean that at some point in the future, any such donation made since January 2014 will be published, but the Secretary of State has not indicated when this will happen.

I was very disappointed that DUP Councillors voted against this motion with complete, absolute and total silence on reasons why. If we are to improve the levels of trust and confidence in the political system then we need to let the public know who is funding our political parties. If we do not lift the veil of secrecy, then suspicion and mistrust will only fester among the public.