The rush for immediate decommissioning of weapons is a demand from the most backward and bigoted section of the Unionist camp -- one which Unionist leader David Trimble is all too willing to oblige.
It is not even a genuine demand but a tub-thumping device to scupper the peace process and continue with the old ways of subjecting the Catholic community of northern Ireland to institutionalised discrimination and social injustice.
If Republicans had taken the same boneheaded view from their own standpoint -- that peace and progress could not begin until British and Loyalist weapons were decommissioned -- there would have been no IRA ceasefire and no peace process at all.
The progress that has been achieved so far is based on the courageous steps taken by the IRA in calling and maintaining its ceasefire, by Sinn Fein and the SDLP in fighting for the peace process to get underway and by the majority of the people from both communities who voted for the Good Friday Agreement and expressed their desire for an end to violence.
In all of this has been an understanding that peace has to be built on justice and on growing trust and that the weapons and means of war will finally go when the fear and the oppression are gone.
It is unreasonable -- ridiculous even -- to expect the oppressed community to disarm before members of the new Assembly have even had time to get used to saying "good morning" to each other let alone carry out the reforms necessary for building a lasting peace.
Decommissioning should be seen as the fruit of the struggle for peace, not a demand made at the outset by a bunch of bigots hoping to bring the new Assembly to a grinding halt.
The British imperialist state, which lies at the root of the divisions and the violence, has not only failed to speak out against the reactionary Orange bigots but has so far failed to adequately carry out its self-appointed task of reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), apart from a little tinkering and the dropping of the word "royal" from its title.
This has a bearing on the weapons issue since decommissioning depends on both Republicans and Loyalists feeling confident that they have security and that the police and other agents of the state will be impartial, fair and willing to protect and serve all of the people without fear or favour.
The RUC is light years away from this position. It has always been a sectarian, almost entirely Protestant, force which has played a major rolein the long-standing oppression of the Catholic minority. The Catholic community neither trusts nor wants this remnant of the past -- and with very good reason.
Not surprisingly the capitalist media gives plenty of space and air time to Trimble and the bigots behind him. This promotes the view that the threat to peace comes from the weapons of the IRA.
This all flies in the face of the fact that the IRA ceasefire has held firm despite many deliberate provocations and that Loyalist gunmen have in that time carried out sectarian killings.
it also ignores the fact that the largest arsenal of all belongs to the British Army. Despite the opening of the Assembly, British troops continue to circle the fields and villages of South Armagh in military helicopters and the many fortified barracks continue to cast a shadow over the north of Ireland.
Nor should it be forgotten that weapons do not fire themselves -- if there were a return to violence it would arise from a breakdown in the struggle for peace.
The armed groups are not equal in the decommissioning stakes. For the British Army decommissioning is meaningless since it is an army and always has a ready supply of guns. Only British withdrawal from Ireland would meet the requirements.
The Loyalist para-military gangs are in a similar position. It is never really explained where their weapons come from but considering which interests they ultimately serve it is clear there would always be a ready resupply available.
In this situation the demands for immediate decommissioning are simply calls for one-sided disannament based on holding the democratically-approved Assembly to hostage.
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FIGURES published last week reveal that 26 patients died in December in the London area as doctors tried desperately to find intensive care beds.
The figures from the Emergency Beds Service were leaked to the London Evening Standard. They cover only one month and only one part of the country.
The indications are that most of the rest of the country faced a similar plight and the figures for January are likely to be worse because the height of the flu crisis came in that month.
Outside London there are just as many horror stories. For example, one woman was airlifted 50 miles from the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton to the Isle of Wight in a gale on Christmas eve.
The figures show that doctors made 352 enquiries to the Emergency Beds Service and 148 patients ended up being transferred.
In 169 cases the transfer did not happen, either because the patient was too ill to travel, they had died or they had been found a bed in the hospital after all.
Geoff Martin of the campaigning group London Health Emergency said: "This is hard evidence that everyone who needs an intensive care bed in London is not getting one -- which for some people is a death sentence.
"All of these people were seriously ill and a number would have died anyway, but it certainly cannot help that people are being ferried around London and further when their life is on a knife edge."
Many more patients suffered unacceptable waits for treatment and a survey published last week showed that elderly people with serious conditions, including heart attacks and breathing problems are being kept waiting longer than a day for a hospital bed.
One woman aged 71 had to wait 40 hours on a trolley for admission at Northwick Park Hospital. Another women in the same department aged 69 and suffering from a heart complaint waited 30 hours on a trolley.
In the King George Hospital in Ilford, six patients with very serious conditions had each been kept waiting for over 20 hours.
Christine Hancock, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, described this as a "national scandal".
"Nurses are at breaking point concerned that they can't even provide the basics of care."
Donna Covey, director of the Association of Community Health Councils, said: "These shocking and distressing figures show that people are right to be alarmed about the state of the health service.
"Despite the extra money the Government invested in Accident and Emergency following last year's survey, people are still facing unacceptably long waits, even by the Department of Health's own standards."
The crisis has of course led to increasing delays for those awaiting non-urgent surgery and it could be that some will never get it. An influential pressure group that once advised former Tory health secretary Virginia Bottomley that London did not really need most of its hospitals, is now saying the NHS should concentrate only on those who are likely to die from their illnesses or conditions.
The King's Fund last week called on the Government to abandon hospital waiting lists, sending patients back to their family doctors, and admit that it cannot fund all non-urgent or "elective" care.
This would affect more than a million on waiting lists. Many are suffering from painful and disabling conditions that prevent them from working or from leading normal lives.
Providing support for them while they wait often for years or more, is costing the country millions and costing the patients a quality of life that cannot be assessed in financial terms.
Many will try to scrape up the money to pay for private treatment and get into debt. Others will just have to go on suffering.
This is outrageous in a wealthy country. It is a scandal that some people now incapacitated by curable conditions, who have relatives in India, are travelling there for treatment because waiting lists are shorter and private treatment lessexpensive.
The Department of Health announced last Wednesday that it was to reintroduce recovery wards for elderly patients to be nursed after surgery, recognising at last that they cannot just be sent home immediately after surgery and be expected to cope.
This is aimed to free beds in acute wards for emergency cases but it implies an increase in the total number of hospital beds. This is very welcome but may not be easy to achieve with the increasing NHS reliance on private Finance Initiative hospitals.
These are rented from the private sector -- which determines the number of beds in them.
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by Daphne Liddle
POLICE last Monday announced a new investigation into the deaths by
hanging of two black men, which they had written off as suicide but which
friends and family of the victims claim were racist murders.
Harold McGowan, known as Errol, was found hanging last July and then his nephew Jason McGowan was found dead in similar circumstances on New Year's Eve. Neither left a suicide note nor had any reason to be depressed -- except a campaign of racist abuse.
Errol was a builder and part-time bouncer. Two years ago he barred a group of white troublemakers from a pub. After that he was subjected to a sustained campaign of racist abuse and threats.
There were threatening phone calls. Cars would drive past his house while the occupants gestured, drawing a finger across their throats, implying "You're dead".
His eight-year-old son was attacked in the streef pushed to the ground and told his fingers would be cut off.
Errol was told often that he was as good as dead and that his name had been added to a death list of the local Combat 18 (neo-Nazi thugs) cell.
He asked for police protection in the week before he died and reported a number of racist incidents.
But when the police found his body they said there were no suspicious circumstances and put it down to suicide. This was at a time when the McPherson inquiry into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence racist murder was filling the headlines and police officers were telling the public that sort of thing would never happen again.
Errol was found dead in a house he was minding for a friend, positioned to look as though he had cut a length of flex from an iron and hanged himself from a door knob with his feet on the floor.
An independent pathologist called in by the family has questioned if anyone could kill themselves in this way -- the pain would stop them long before they were dead.
Jason was deeply disturbed by his uncle's death and changed his name from King to McGowan. He began to investigate Errol's death and to try to involve colleagues where he worked for the local newspaper, the Shropshire Star.
Then the family began to get warnings that another McGowan would be "sorted out".
Jason was a young man with a wife, Sinead, and was thinking of starting a family. The couple spent New Year's Eve at the Elephant and Castle Pub in Telford, opposite the newspaper's offices.
His wife recalled him saying: "There's no reason to change anything. I am totally happy."
At around 11.30pm he left the pub for some fresh air and was not seen alive again by his friends and family.
He was later found hanged by his belt, on some railings beside a playing field, in a similar position to Errol.
The police at least did acknowledge this death may have been suspicious but claimed their investigations led them nowhere.
The family were quite clear. They said: "Jason and Harold were killed by racists. They had no reason to take their own lives."
The story came to national attention when the Independent ran it on its front page. Then followed a curious dispute between the national broadsheet and the local Shropshire Star which wrote: "Jason: is the grief distorting the facts?"
Many Telford people are horrified by suggestions in the national press that racist lynch mobs are running out of control in their town.They are adamant that Telford is no worse than most towns in Britain.
But it does not take a mob to commit shocking racist murders -- just a tiny handful of vicious racist thugs, as in Eltham where Stephen Lawrence died.
The people of Telford are probably indeed no better or worse than anywhere else but that is no reason to deny the existence of racist murderers.
It is in everybody's interests that these killers are found quickly and brought to justice.
The police cannot claim they are ignorant of Combat 18, its nature and most of its members. Just after the McPherson inquiry, John Grieve, who heads the Metropolitan Police new race crime squad, claimed they had Combat 18 and similar racist terret groups under very close surveillance.
And Scotland Yard is now helping the West Mercia police to investigate the Telford killings. They cannot claim they have no leads. Anti-fascist organisations like Searchlight could point them in the right direction.
But it seems as though the lessons of the McPherson inquiry have not sunk in at all with the police.
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by Steve Lawton
ONCE again, the fragile roots of the Irish peace process are being tested. David Trimble, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader and First Minister in the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, is threatening to suspend the two-month old devolved government.
This is "inevitable" he said, because Canadian General John de Chastelain's report of the Decommissioning body last Monday on weapons handover, does not demonstrate that the IRA has begun giving up its weapons. Trimble said he hadn't actually seen the report.
He accuses Sinn Fein of breaking the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But the timetabling of demilitarisation is not enshrined in that Agreement as the exclusive responsibility of the IRA.
There has been a typical and tacitly provocative silence about the obvious fact that Loyalist death squad's have yet to decommission, and the British military have yet to begin seriously scaling down its occupation forces let alone actually to begin to decamp. There's plenty of evidence, in fact suggesting the military is strengthening patrols.
The hardware numbers game would hardly require a mathematician to see how grossly unbalanced is the military potential between British-backed unionist-loyalist forces and the republican-nationalist movement. The IRA in its statement on Tuesday made its position clear. They were "persuaded to enter into discussions", which they "did in good faith and construetively" and are "totally committed to the peace process...that the declaration and maintenance of the cessation, which is now entering its fifth year is evidence of thaf that the IRA's guns are silent and that there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA."
As we go to press, there is the familiar intense political shuttling and manoeuvring between the major parties in Ireland -- north and south -- and the British government as efforts are made to prevent the re-imposition of Westminster powers.
United States President Bill Clinton said his Administration is "heavily involved" in the latest hurdle. And to prevent the process being derailed, he said, all parties will have to "honour the terms of the [Good Friday] Agreement."
Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said: "I can understand why 86 per cent of people want decommissioning now, but if you were to ask those same people should we destroy the political structure's over guns which are silent you would get a similar percentage of people saying 'No, no, that's not what we want at all'."
The Sinn Fein leader lamented the fact that guns were not yet "redundant", but he said "we haven't made that degree of political progress."
Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson on Tuesday said there was nothing inevitable about suspending Stormont. Much will depend on how the so far undisclosed de Chastelain report is interpreted.
But it is also about maintaining pressure on Sinn Fein's growing political representation at grassroots level.
As the Executive and Assembly proceeds, the practical implementation of change looms larger. Working peoples' concerns, to some extent across the divide, that Sinn Fein policies most radically represent is creating visible tensions.
Delivery and real representation on the economy, health and education, for instance, is beginning to define the Assembly parties' fortunes for the future. As ever -- in whose interests will each party act?
Trimble said that Sinn Fein has got the best deal it's going to get, and that suggests a fear that Sinn Fein is capable of winning hearts and minds by addressing social and economic issues.
Guns are therefore not the longer term issue. But it is for unionists who want to use it to keep Sinn Fein at arms length in the shaky Assembly and, if nof then put everything in reverse. As Gerry Adams said, that would spell disaster all round.
* Nearly ten years on and a further blow was delivered to the families of Karen Reilly and Martin Peake -- both of whom were shot dead and a third injured in a car on 30 September 1990 by British soldiers: The northern Ireland Court of Appeal last weekend acquitted Private Lee Clegg of any criminal act in the incident.
Clegg, who has been promoted to Corporal, was initially found guilty of killing Karen Reilly, he was cleared after a retrial and was then convicted again of shooting Martin Peake. Following CLegg's appeal last November, Lord Chief Justice Carswell last weekend cleared him on the basis of "weak" evidence.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams described it as "the final insult" to the families of the dead and the wider nationalist community.
"Nationalists will not be surprised by this ruling. This decision will reinforce the view of many, that the British criminal justice system and those Diplock judges who are an integral part of it must go."
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by Caroline Colebrook
ONE DAY of solid strike action last week won train drivers working for the French-owned train company Connex a complete victory in their battle for a shorter working week and for all their pay to be taken into account when calculating pensions.
The strike brought chaos to south London and south east England as commuters either stayed away from work or took to their cars, resulting in horrendous traffrc jams and disruption to just about all the capital's businesses.
Only 10 per cent of Connex trains ran and they were driven by instructors.
The strike was one of a number planned but the rest were called off after the company capitulated and agreed to meet Aslef, the drivers' union, and implement the long-promised reduction in working hours from 37 a week to 35. The cut will be fully implemented by October 2001.
Connex will be forced to recruit at least another 80 drivers so it can operate a proper train service without demanding overtime working from its regular drivers.
Aslef general secretary Mick Rix said: "It is thanks to the solidarity and determination of our members at Connex that we have been able to achieve this satisfactory result."
Drivers had been angered by the company relying on them to work on their rest days in order simply to operate a normal service. This left them exhausted with obvious implications for safety.
The company had agreed to these measures last year but had dragged its heels in implementation.
Then Connex went to court last December for a ruling to prevent an overtime ban over the Christmas and Millennium celebrations -- effectively forcing drivers to work exhausting hours when they most wanted some time to be with their families.
It was this that led to a full overtime ban from the first week of January and 100 percent solid backing for the strike action.
Connex knew its franchise to run the trains was due soon for renewal and in danger of being lost. And the company faced the prospect of mounting fines for failing to operate a satisfactory service.
The union is now prepared to push for further improvements from all the privatised train operating companies, including reducing the retirement age to 60.
Aslef is also fighting to bring the numbers of drivers employed on all Britain's railways back to the level it was before privatisation in 1995.
The new franchise companies first action was to cut the number of drivers from 17,500 in 1995 to 14,000 in 1998. At the same time passenger numbers increased by eight per cent.
This meant more and more drivers working more and more overtime. Last year, after pressure from Aslef and after several train companies were penalised for not running adequate services, the number of drivers increased by 600.
One senior industry consultant admitted: "There will be further pressure, and drivers will end up being seriously better paid than they are today.
"But in many ways train drivers are underpaid. They work long hours in a stressful job where they have up to 800 people travelling behind them. A moment's loss of concentration can be catastrophic."
And a senior executive of one of the rail companies complained: "Next they will want a four-day week. If the drivers end up breaking a few companies, they have nothing to worry about.
"The Strategic Rail Authority would have to take over and they would be kept on to run the services. It takes between one and two years to train a driver, so managers cannot bust a strike by simply climbing into the cab."
This is a back-handed admission that the companies are mere parasites. They are not needed but the drivers are essential.
If the drivers and other rail employees can succeed in breaking the companies so they are returned to public ownership, everyone will benefit except the companies and their greedy shareholders.
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