Framwellgate take Youth Speak crown

Students from Framwellgate School emerged victorious in the Durham Rotary club’s annual Youth Speak programme last month.

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Competing against Durham School, Durham Johnstone and St Leonard’s Catholic School in the debating competition, Framwellgate took the top prize, winning a closely-fought final against Durham School on the topic of restricting the pay of senior executives.

Hosted in the debating chamber on Palace Green, the finals had earlier seen Durham School, represented by Dylan Mistry, Martha Bradley and Alexander Smith, win a debate on abolishing private schools against St Leonard’s, represented by Alice Phillips, Charlotte Welsh and Joseph Grehan-Bradley.

Meanwhile Framwellgate (Joshua Morgan, Sarah Kingston and Christian Thompson-Hails) beat Durham Johnstone (Callum Hunter, Zeneshe Bamanji and Umair Khan) in a debate on introducing minimum-pricing for alcohol.

Run with the help of the Durham Union Society (DUS), the Youth Speak programme sees university students volunteer in local schools to help young people develop skills of public speaking and debating.

Kit Mercer, the student coordinating the programme for the DUS this year, said, ‘I took great pride in seeing how much the kids improved.’

‘We had three sessions with them and they went from being really nervous at the start to confidently speaking in front of the whole chamber about a topic they’d only been told about 20 minutes previously.’

‘I had been a bit worried that they would have been bored or disruptive but they were all really keen and a genuine pleasure to coach.’

President Martin Leake and Phil Mars of the Rotary Club presented the winners’ shield and certificates to all of the participants after the final. Christian Thompson-Hails of Framwellgate was awarded ‘Best Speaker’.

David Jackson of the Durham Rotary club said, ‘The Youth Speak programme is a Rotary programme that runs in many countries, but in Durham it is unique because it works in collaboration with the DUS.’

‘We organise all of the schools involved and they come from the Durham Rotary club catchment area: Belmont, Durham City, Framwellgate and Neville’s Cross.’

‘I think the whole scheme is brilliant and the schools are amazing. Kit and the DUS team are a pleasure to work with. They’re professional, enthusiastic and make it happen. The schools really appreciate the work the DUS volunteers do.’

Photograph: David Jackson

Calls for better riverside safety as inquest hears death of Sope Peters was accidental

County Durham coroner Andrew Tweddle has called for better riverside safety after an inquest last week heard that the death of Sope Peters was accidental.

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Sope, who studied Economics at Hatfield College, fell into the River Wear shortly after midnight on Tuesday 29th October 2013.

The body of the 20-year-old was discovered five weeks later by emergency services and a post-mortem examination revealed the cause of death to be drowning.

Speaking at the inquest at Crook Civic Centre, Detective Sergeant Stephen Smythe said that Peters was last seen in CCTV footage outside Osborne’s bar and then heading down a set of steep stairs from Elvet Bridge.

DS Smythe said: ’It is almost certain he stumbled down those steps and entered the Wear over the low wall at the bottom of them.

‘I have tried to negotiate those steps and it is difficult even when sober. The lighting is poor and there is no hand rail.’

DS Smythe said that Sope was over the legal driving limit for alcohol but no drugs were found in his system.

Coroner Tweddle said that he would be writing to Durham County Council in a bid to improve the safety of the steps, which he described as ‘difficult and dangerous’.

‘It may be a small comfort to the family knowing that someone is hopefully going to have a look at the situation,’ he said.

Sope’s uncle Lanre Peters said: ‘He was an absolutely fantastic guy with a promising future ahead of him, which has just been tragically cut short.’

Dr Anthony Bash, Acting Principal at Hatfield, said ‘Members of Hatfield College were deeply saddened by the death of Sope Peters. He was a popular student who is greatly missed.

‘We marked Sope’s passing with a memorial event to celebrate his life.

‘In order to recognise the hard work of the Teesdale and Weardale Search and Mountain Rescue Team that helped the Police to search for Sope, the students at Hatfield College have raised about £1,000 for the charity.’

Photograph: Sope Peters

Published in Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=47286 – 14th April 2014

Durham MCC cricketer stars in World Cricket League triumph

Durham MCC all-rounder Ben Stevens won the Player of the Tournament award and inspired Jersey to victory in World Cricket League Division 5 in Malaysia this week.

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Stevens, who studies Spanish at St. Aidan’s College and is currently on a year-abroad in Argentina, was the top-run scorer in the tournament, making 403 runs at an average of 67.17.

His highest score of 84 came in the final against Malaysia, where he shared in a match-winning 152-run stand with ex-Durham MCC cricketer Nathaniel Watkins (116), leading Jersey to a 71-run win.

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The left-arm spinner also picked up 13 wickets in Kuala Lumpur at an average of 15.08.

Stevens’ performances across the week helped Jersey to win all of their games, seeing off hosts Malaysia, Tanzania, the Cayman Islands, Nigeria and local rivals Guernsey to secure promotion to Division 4.

Jersey, who’s squad also includes Durham graduate Ed Farley, now travel to Singapore for World Cricket League Division 4 in June.

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Speaking after the final, Stevens said, ‘It’s been an unbelievable ride and it feels incredible now to know that our hard work has given us a trip to Singapore.

‘We knew we had it in us to win the tournament so we’re happy we’ve been able to do that.’

Reflecting on the best moments of the week, Stevens said, ‘From a cricketing perspective, Nat’s century to win against the home favourites in the final was pretty special. There was also the win against the Cayman Islands that secured our promotion.

‘Personally, I’m obviously very happy to have got runs and wickets in the tournament, and it’s nice to know you’ve done your bit for promotion. Conversely, it’s not so nice to know I’m completely incapable of scoring a century.’

Stevens also won the Player of the Tournament award when Jersey were promoted from World Cricket League Division 6 last summer, making it two in two for the Durham all-rounder.

Photographs: CricketEurope, ICC

Keeping the radical flame alive

Nestled in the heart of Durham City, The People’s Bookshop is an independent, radical bookshop that is fast becoming a focal point for progressive politics in the county.

Ben Sellers

Run by Ben Sellers, a former trade unionist and Waterstones employee, its walls overflow with classics of socialist political thought, intermingled with local history and rare books.

’This space is an alternative to the mainstream,’ Ben explains. ‘It seemed like a crazy idea to start with but I wanted to create a place in Durham which could be a hub for political activity and campaigning. I wanted to create a community space for people, a place where they could have a voice.’

Surrounded by volumes of Marx and Engels, Ben speaks passionately about the progress of radical left-wing politics in Durham.

‘It’s been very quiet for a long time. We don’t get frequent protests and campaigns around here but things are changing. For example, the People’s Assembly held a meeting in the Miners’ Hall in July that drew hundreds of people.

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‘The Trades Union Council of Durham also meets every month in my shop and I’ve set up a group called ‘Red Labour’ which stresses the core values of the party.’

Ben is critical of New Labour and the party’s recent history but through The People’s Bookshop he is taking action. ’I think our leaders need a kick and some pressure from below. I don’t sit back and think “I hope Ed Miliband turns out alright”. I’m doing something about it.’

Labour’s new generation

Meet Thomas Nearney and Katie Corrigan, the fresh faces of the Labour Party in Durham.

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Elected to the County Council in May earlier this year, they are Durham’s youngest political representatives and are already hard at work serving the local community.

Fresh from meetings at County Hall that day, we sit together drinking coffee in Chapters Tearoom as glorious autumnal sunshine bathes Elvet Bridge outside.

We chat about politics and Thomas, who went to St Bede’s School in Lanchester and is now entering his 2nd year studying Law at St Mary’s College, starts animatedly on his work as a councillor in his ward, Annfield Plain.

‘You never find yourself doing the same job twice,’ he says grinning, ‘which has its benefits and its drawbacks.

‘It is so varied but sometimes you have so many issues to deal with that you have to learn to delegate. It’s a skill you have to learn quickly.’

Katie, who studied at St Leonard’s Catholic School in Durham and has just finished a degree in Sociology and Politics at Sunderland University, represents the Belmont ward and nods in agreement.

‘The work can be about anything,’ she says, ‘ranging from pavements to potholes. There are lots of individual issues to deal with and each day can be completely different.’

But what inspired them to go into politics in the first place? And why Labour? Katie needs no time to think. ‘I’m Labour because my family has always been Labour.

‘My father was a miner so obviously I come from a strong Labour background. I’ve always been interested in politics and I wanted to get more involved in the community.’

Thomas takes up the theme. ‘For me, my values are Labour values. I believe wholeheartedly in people working together and in fairness.

‘Once you step out of Durham City, which is a lovely place, there are some really tough areas that need help and need work to get better. ‘

He also speaks passionately about the educational opportunities he feels he received as a result of his party’s work. ‘To be honest,’ he confides, ‘I’m the first person in my family to go to university.’ Katie nods too.

‘I feel like if it hadn’t been for a Labour government investing in my school, a good school in the past but one that you could feel was improving because of the investment, then that wouldn’t have happened.’

Working for Durham County Council puts Thomas and Katie at the heart of an organisation that has annual revenues of over £1 billion and employs around 18,500 people.

Yet they have come into power at a difficult financial time for the Council, a reality Thomas sees every day in his work.

‘The financial pressures we’re under now are enormous,’ he explains. ‘£200 million is being cut from the budget by 2015 due to the reduction in funding from central government.

‘‘This is the one big downside of our work. It’s fantastic to be able to make a difference in your community, but we also have to make savings whilst fulfilling our statutory duties.

‘When you’re looking at whether or not a vulnerable woman can have a home care service, that’s not nice. That’s not what I came into government to do.’

Despite the difficult decisions they need to make, Thomas says he can still take heart from the actions of the Labour Party in County Durham.

‘We still manage to pay a living wage to all our employees and we have no zero hour contracts. Although we don’t have much money, we’re trying to set an example of how things should be done.’

Our conversation turns to Labour on the national stage. What do they think of Ed Miliband? Katie’s response is qualified. ‘I think he’s good, but I think he could do with some work.’

‘I think he could be stronger in terms of how he presents himself. The public want to hear a strong voice and know that they’ve got someone who’s going to represent them.’

Locally, Labour will have control of the Council until 2017, but there’s certainly no mood of complacency in the party ranks.

Katie and Thomas already have their eyes set on campaigning for the elections to the European Parliament next year and the general election in 2015.

‘Sometimes in the North-East people think,“It’s a Labour safe seat, there’s no point in campaigning there”, but I don’t think we take anything for granted,’ Thomas says.

‘In 2010 the Liberal Democrats came close in Durham City,’ Katie adds, ‘and were only a couple of thousand votes behind the Labour candidate, so everyone was quite worried. We’ll start campaigning for the general election soon.’

Such campaigning will look to draw upon the energies of young people in Durham City. How politically engaged are the youth in this region?

Katie is optimistic. ‘I think Durham has got good youth participation. I’m involved with County Durham Labour and we campaign everywhere.

‘Durham University also has its own Labour club that is doing well. They’ve done a lot of work for the living wage.’

With politics clearly in the blood, my final question is about long-term plans. Is this the career for them?

The answers are mixed. ‘I don’t want to be a councillor forever,’ Katie admits, ‘and I think I’d like to work in Social Research.’

Thomas is different. ‘Up until 2017, because the people have put their faith in me, I’m obviously sticking with the council. I’ve got to work for them. They’re the people that matter.’

‘But long-term, who knows? I’ve got to get the law degree out of the way, maybe train as a barrister, and then I’m always going to have an interest in politics. Whether I pursue that as an MP or stay with the Council, I don’t know.’

Whatever they choose to do, Councillors Corrigan and Nearney clearly have bright political futures ahead of them and the constituents of County Durham are in safe hands. Watch this space.

A brighter future for Pakistan?

Victory for Nawaz Sharif’s PML (N) party in May’s general elections marked a monumental occasion in Pakistan’s history. This was the first democratic transition between parliaments in its fragile 66-year life as a nation.

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Sharif’s installation as Prime Minister and the creation of a coalition government follows elections where a raucous media, a rejuvenated youth and a wave of anti-corruption sentiment produced an invigorated campaign and a genuine atmosphere of political change.

Support swelled for cricketing hero Imran Khan’s centrist PTI party, which won the second largest number of votes, but they came third behind the former ruling PPP party in terms of seats in the National Assembly.

Turnout was high at around 55%, up from 44% in 2008, despite Taliban attacks on several polling stations aiming to deter voters.

Countering this terrorism and curbing Taliban influence in the northern areas of Pakistan will be top of Nawaz Sharif’s priorities in government. Other issues he must tackle include alleviating poverty and illiteracy, solving the country’s energy crises, improving relations with India and tackling corruption.

But hearing his promises of change and reform, how do young Pakistanis feel about their country’s future? Is there cause for hope and optimism? Or will nothing change?

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Dr Muhammad Arshad, founder of Durham’s India-Pakistan Society and a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Durham’s Chemistry department, said he was feeling positive about recent events. ‘This election has seen the youth of Pakistan and an upper class of society come out to vote for the first time,’ he said.

‘The political situation is now very different because of the pro-activeness of the Pakistani media and the involvement of the youth in politics. But Nawaz Sharif should be well aware that he and his party will have to take lots of positive steps to be re-elected. I can only hope that his government does not repeat the mistakes of the past.’

Dr Arshad’s cautious optimism was echoed by Ali Hameed, an activist from Islamabad who is the founder of the Sha’oor Society, a student organization that aims to raise moral and social awareness among Pakistan’s youth.

Mr Hameed said: ‘These were the most moving and ‘happening’ elections in Pakistan’s history. I voted for the PTI who talked about justice, self-reliance and self-esteem. But overall I’m happy because democracy has won in Pakistan.’

‘People came out of their homes and voted for what was right for them. This will surely make for a strong future because democratic institutions have been strengthened.’

Haseeb Khan is a 2nd year Historian at Josephine Butler who has parents from Pakistan. He spoke of the importance of the PTI in creating an atmosphere of hope.

‘Generally I’m very sceptical about Pakistani politics but I think the PTI have changed things,’ he said. ‘Their rhetoric is fresh and Imran Khan is a national hero. He has spoken out against corruption and he is anti-American and anti-drones. A friend of mine told me that, if overseas Pakistanis could have voted, 99% of them probably would have voted for Imran Khan.’

But Haseeb sounded a note of caution in his views on the future. ‘As long as power remains in the hands of the same elites and families, not much will change,’ he said. ‘But if we can get past that, there’s hope.’

Published at Palatinate Online, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 2nd June 2013 – http://www.palatinate.org.uk/?p=39880

Durham student makes political history

Thomas Nearney, a first-year Law student at St Mary’s College, has made political history by becoming the youngest ever member elected to Durham County Council.

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Mr Nearney, who was elected by the narrow margin of 42 votes as a Labour councillor for Annfield Plain, said that he was ‘ecstatic’ about the result.

‘Councillor Michele Hodgson and I were fighting a seat which was half Labour, half Derwentside Independent, so it was not a safe Labour seat as some might think,’ he said.

He attributed their electoral success to a strong campaign on the right messages.

‘We fought a long campaign on local issues, where we listened and acted upon people’s concerns. Our campaign was very positive, which I think helped provide solid foundations on which to build.

‘We set priorities around the quality of the local environment, housing and community engagement; and that is what we will now be acting upon in power.

‘Also, our priorities were deliberately realistic in times where Durham County Council faces budget cuts of £200 million. However, the public saw how effective the Labour team was in the area, and how closely Michele and I work together on local issues, which bodes very well for the future.’

Councillor Nearney joined the Labour Party four years ago when he was a student at St Bede’s School in Lanchester. Since coming to Durham he’s been balancing his degree with election campaigning and a part-time job, a heavy workload that he says will prepare him for the role of councillor.

‘By losing my part time job I will able to concentrate my efforts in Annfield Plain, especially as I will be living at home in my second year.

‘My aim is to be accessible as a Councillor and a Law degree helps facilitate that as it is incredibly flexible, with few lectures and lots of reading.’

He said that he would work hard for local residents and listen to their concerns.

‘It is an honour to have the trust of the people placed in me and I will not let them down with the excuse “I’m too busy” – if they ever hear that, then I will have failed them, and I’m not planning that!’

Councillor Nearney also said that he was ‘exceptionally proud of the local Labour party’ for the gains they had made in last Thursday’s elections, thanking their members and families for the support they had given him since campaigning began in November.

Published in Palatinate, Durham’s Official Student Newspaper, 9th May 2013