2017 was a very eventful year, alongside our Speakeasy podcast reviewing the previous 12 months; we asked a number of TLR contributors to highlight a key moment from the last 12 months.
Judith Thurley shared her experiences with the Benefits system and the help she received from PPR and others; 2017 marked the start of Welfare Reform’s implementation in the North:
On a cold sunny morning in November 2017 a group of working class women came together in Ardoyne Library on the Crumlin Road in north Belfast. Also present were Sean Brady from Participation and the Practice of Rights, and Kellie Turtle of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, among others. This was one of two information mornings held that week in Belfast, the other in the east of the city, and both organised by PPR and the WRDA.
We were all women coming together to learn how to resist welfare reforms, a disingenuous term which translates in reality to cuts and sanctions against people’s benefits. Some of us in this ad-hoc group have already been subject to sanctions which have resulted in even worse poverty, debt, destitution and homelessness. Some of us had already been through the appeal process after sanctions by callous and privileged decision makers.
In case you are not aware, when someone appeals such a decision and goes to tribunal, they are not entitled to their benefits throughout the whole process, which takes months. So they pay a heavy price – literally – for having the courage and the energy to appeal. In my case my ESA was sanctioned as a punishment for not being able to attend a medical assessment. I appealed on the grounds that it was because of my medical conditions that I was unable to attend. I was told verbally that I was appealing on the wrong grounds, that I wasn’t sanctioned because of my medical conditions but on a technicality. They refused to grasp that my medical conditions were the problem so I was caught in a Catch-22.
My tribunal was chaired by solicitor Brian Hanna, my adversary was a young guy who did not look at me or greet me, and my advocate was a support worker from CAB. Hanna told me I would hear his decision within two or three days. I lost my tribunal but it took three weeks for him to make his decision and I was not given an explanation. I immediately reapplied for ESA which was immediately reinstated and backdated. You may draw your own conclusions from that. It had taken seven months of no ESA to get to this point.
What I heard at that meeting in Ardoyne library was an important political moment for me, even in a year which bore witness to huge political events; It really marked a turning point in that for the first time it seemed there was hope for people like me. In relation to the changeover from DLA to PIP, or to any benefit sanctions, there is an organisation and individuals who are proactively working to guide people step by step through the application process. Someone to tell people exactly how to word the descriptors and good causes so as to properly convey their symptoms and how they impact on their lives. So as not to be given a score of zero and have to go through the dreadful appeal process.
For people who have been sanctioned or are at risk of being sanctioned; the PPR Project provides the contact details of the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and a template of a 6-page letter of complaint to him. But get this: at the end of the meeting there wasn’t just a cup of tea and a biscuit. There was a really good lunch. PPR and the WRDA have our backs – they knew that some of us were hungry.
TLR Regular Elaine Crory shared her experience being involved in organising last Autumn’s ‘Rally For Choice’; a huge rally of over 2,000 pro choice activists:
It was hard to miss the Rally for Choice in Belfast on October 14th this year. With a turnout of over 2,000 people it was a hugely colourful and inspiring event which made an unequivocal statement about our demand for free, safe and legal abortion for anyone who needs one.
While work is being done to change the law through courts and through lobbying of political parties, Rally for Choice provided an opportunity for all of us to make our views known on the streets. It is important always to stress that there is a gulf between the views of the general public and the views of our political representatives on abortion. It is easy for people, for example the British media and public, to get the impression that the unwavering anti-choice positions taken by most of our elected representatives is a reasonable stance because it reflects the views of the people in Northern Ireland. By showing up and shouting about it we make that disconnect clear, and we provide a space for people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to make their voices heard. I am certainly not alone among those involved in organising the Rally in being very moved by the reactions of members of the public who clearly felt that we spoke for them that day.
Perhaps one of the most striking elements of the Rally for Choice was its messaging; in the run up to the Rally it released a number of videos which addressed the issue of choice more broadly, taking a joined-up view of politics and an uncompromising approach to demanding change. Reproductive choice is vital, but a truly free society requires choice in all areas of life, and intersectional feminism must take a stance that fights for freedom wherever it is lacking. The impact Rally for Choice has made already is significant, it will be worth watching to see what comes next.
2017 has seen some remarkable developments in the provision of abortion for people from Northern Ireland. Danielle Roberts summed up some of the key moments in the campaign for free safe and legal abortion in 2017, focusing on political and legal developments:
In June A and B took their case to the Supreme Court. This judicial review was brought by a mother and daughter who had to travel and pay for abortion care in England in 2012 when the teen was 15. They were calling for NHS funded abortion treatment to be available for people from Northern Ireland. They narrowly lost their hearing; interestingly the judge from Northern Ireland and the judge who happens to be a woman ruled in their favour. The Supreme Court found that while the Secretary of State for Health at Westminster could choose to provide NHS abortions, they didn’t have to.
Just weeks after A and B hit the headlines in GB, Northern Ireland’s abortion law was back on the front page in light of the scrutiny of the DUP. In the run up to the Queen’s Speech Labour MP Stella Creasy organised a group of cross party MPs to propose an amendment calling for the provision of NHS funded abortion care. The Tories risked an embarrassing defeat at the start of their new term, partially at the hands of their own MPs. Also the notoriously anti choice DUP would have been forced to pick between reneging on their just negotiated deal or supporting a position far beyond their ‘pro life’ stance. Before a debate on the amendment an announcement was made, saving the green benches from the talk of apparent compassion for ‘vulnerable women’ that we have often heard from DUP MLAs at Stormont.
In a surprising turn of events Justine Greening issued a statement that a funding scheme would be put in place for women from Northern Ireland who travel to England, the amendment was withdrawn. The money would come from the pot of the Government Equalities Office, rather than the NHS budget. Clinics immediately stopped charging for treatment while the details of the scheme were being hashed out. We are now in a position where the funding scheme should be in place by the end of the year. Thanks to contributions form organisation such as Alliance for Choice and the Abortion Support Network, the scheme now includes provision to fund travel for those with a low income and minors, as well as the funding for treatment.
The funding will help many of the roughly 1000 women a year who travel to GB. However it still leaves many behind, including those with a coercive or abusive partner and those without the documents required to travel. An ongoing issue is the accommodation of people with high risk conditions who need treatment at an NHS facility rather than a clinic, this may require legislative change. Additionally as the funding does not cover appointments in Northern Ireland, an unfortunate by-product has been the closure of Belfast’s only abortion clinic; Marie Stopes International are focusing their resources in England to deal with the expected increase in those who travel.
As the year finishes we await the outcome of another Judicial Review, the NIHRC brought their case to the Supreme Court in October arguing that the lack of abortion provision in Northern Ireland breaches minimum international human rights standards. A woman who has been charged for helping her teenage daughter use safe but illegal pills is still waiting for the Judicial Review hearing on the decision to prosecute her to start. A & B continue to pursue justice and are taking their appeal to Strasbourg.
2017 was a big year for Jeremy Corbyn, who surprised the media who lambasted him throughout his leadership by improving Labour’s seat share in Westminster after May’s snap election in June. Connor Hogan recalls some of the highlights from that intense 8 week period:
Without a doubt, 2017 was defined by June 8th. The snap election with all the natural drama, so much in the way of character arcs and redemptions that one almost felt they were living through a well written political novel. To bring us back to those eight weeks, and this being the period just after Christmas; I present to the reader three presents, or ‘Three Ghosts of Election Past’.
Before we meet the ghosts, we must go to the start of the story: the announcement. I will never forget the numbing shock of that traumatic morning –the half-hearted calls to action by some, while almost everyone seemed to be scrambling and panicking, attempting to mask a very real sense of despair and desperation: this was it. We were finished.
Yet things were not as they seemed. The Tory campaign was a slow-motion calamity from start to finish: the infamous Strong and Stable mantra, the Dickensian manifesto, the neck-breaking U-Turn on social policy… and of course the first present I give you, (one that more or less sums up the entire Tory campaign), Greg Knight’s unforgettable election video. Merry Cringemas.
Meanwhile, Labour’s was one of the most flawless election campaigns in modern history. I remember hearing Corbyn appearing at Glastonbury to a crowd of nearly 120,000, and having that ‘where were you when’ sensation, as he quoted Shelley:
‘Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number! Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!’
Though of course, Labour was a house divided. My second gift is the following clip, in which the big beasts of Blairism declare Labour’s prospects with an air of clairvoyance. Watching it now is like listening to a vox pop on a group of dinosaurs, commenting that the big asteroid in the sky has no mandate to wipe them off the planet. June 8th certainly was an extinction event for some.
However the Blairites were not alone, and the Daily Mail’s 13 pages of anti-Corbyn detritus the day before the polls was only the apogee of an historic smear campaign that left virtually no stone in the British mainstream press unturned.
It was for that reason that many of us were bracing for impact when that Exit Poll came in. Nothing could prepare us: Theresa May, having called the election in the most cynical circumstances imaginable, had been Icarus flying too close to the Sun, and had lost her majority. Despite all the odds, she had ended up in a bizarre, humiliating and unworkable coalition with the DUP, and a left-wing Labour government was and is now closer to power than ever before.
The June 8th election was like a phoenix from the ashes – it happened during a time of deep, deep pessimism, fatigue and disillusion. Yet it happened, and so I leave the reader with a final Christmas gift. Get a cup of tea, relax, and enjoy what could well be a taste of what’s to come in 2018.
Not wanting to end on a point about the Tories still being in power. Doreen Manning regales TLR about the funniest story of 2017, that of the Fyre Festival:
During the last weekend of April this year, a spectre haunted Great Exuma: the spectre of gullible trust-fund-baby bourgeois teens who were mis-sold a lavish music festival.
Organised by 20-something capitalist Billy McFarland, and Ja Rule, a rapper who nobody’s even heard of since 2005, the festival promised “an immersive music festival … two transformative weekends … on the boundaries of the impossible” during April and May, including private flights, non-stop attention from emaciated supermodels, luxurious accommodation in “modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes”, meals from celebrity chefs, scuba-diving, yachting, constant live musical appearances, and, for some reason, pig-feeding, on a tropical island they falsely claimed was once owned by drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.
The whole event was ludicrously organised, almost making it seem like a Thanksgiving episode of a sitcom: McFarland apparently learned how to rent a stage by Googling instructions; a $7million loan that was taken out by one of McFarland’s companies Fyre Media in order to fund festival supplies was instead used by McFarland to rent high-end offices in Manhattan; there wasn’t enough money, time, resources or people to put together what McFarland and Ja Rule envisioned; construction workers at “Fyre Cay”, which was later moved to Roker Point, scattered sand over rocks to make it look more like the golden beaches promised in the promo material; luxury accommodation was replaced at the last minute with the same tents that Syrian refugees were living in in Calais; and, people who bought tickets, which cost anything between $1,500 and $12,000, were informed in the days beforehand that the event itself would be cashless, and cardless, and were advised to put all their money on a digital bracelet, leaving many attendees with absolutely no money to leave or buy any resources when they arrived on the island en masse on April 27th.
Across the 2 days, only one musical act performed. Attendees’ luggage was thrown out of the backs of trucks onto the rocks of the island. Tents weren’t assigned to anyone. There was no power supply for people to charge any devices. There was no water or alcohol. ‘Luxury food’ in reality was 2 slices of bread and processed cheese garnished with a pathetic piece of lettuce served in Styrofoam burger containers. There wasn’t any security or medical personnel present on site. Ticket-holders became violent with each other, fighting amongst themselves over food and tents. Anyone who had any battery left in their phones began tweeting about feral dogs lurking on the hills near the site. Flights out of the island were cancelled, leading to attendees being locked into Exuma Airport with no supplies, until finally flights recommenced on the afternoon of the 28th.
The internet let out a collective laugh at rich kids suffering, even more so when one attendee described the site as ‘a warzone’. Celebrities who endorsed the festival were swift to distance themselves from the disaster, including random Kardashian Kendell Jenner, who was paid $250,000 to promote Fyre Festival on her Instagram account. Billy McFarland has since been arrested for wire fraud. Both McFarland and Ja Rule are subjects of eight lawsuits, filed on behalf of Daniel Jung, 6 festival attendees, National Event Services, Kenneth and Emily Reel who were allegedly sent ‘cease and desist’ letters for criticizing Fyre Festival on social media, Sean Daly and Edward Ivey, and ticketing vendor Tablelist.
Fyre Festival’s official Twitter account hasn’t tweeted any new information since April 30th, despite McFarland’s promise of another festival next year. Their final tweet read: ‘Guests have been sent a form that will provide the necessary information to apply for a refund’. Billy McFarland was arrested on the 30th of June for wire fraud. He’s facing 5 years in jail if convicted.