CRAIGAVON Borough Council is writing to the Government, asking it to overturn the decision to end free visas for Chernobyl children who come each year to the UK to boost their immune system and to improve their health.
There is a Craigavon branch of the Chernobyl Children’s Appeal, and one of its officers, Brian Devlin, was in the public gallery as the issue was discussed by the council.
Afterwards he explained that the visa price of £86 per child added significantly to the cost of bringing the children to Northern Ireland each summer.
Mr Devlin explained that, since the catastrophic nuclear explosion in 1986, children from Belarus and Ukraine had come to Northern Ireland, to breathe in fresh air and eat uncontaminated food. “It costs about £800 per child, and we also bring over an interpreter,” he said. “We are a small charity and depend fully on public donations and on the goodwill of people accommodating the children in their homes. The extra £86 per child is a real burden on the charity, but it is a drop in the ocean for the government.
“You have no idea how much this means to the children. Belarus, for example, is a land-locked country and their visits to the seaside in Northern Ireland are such a highlight for them. At the start, we brought around 30 across, and now there are 10-12 each year. They enjoy it so much, and so do the charity workers.”
These views were reflected by every political party in the council, with the notice of motion to overturn the visa costs - due to come into force in March - tabled by Sinn Fein’s Mairead O’Dowd. She said, “This is a Scrooge-like move by the British Government. It places a burden on a small charity and will result in fewer people coming over. Britain is the only country in the EU that plans to re-impose the charges.”
In seconding the motion, Councillor Johnny McGibbon described as “a minor cost to the treasury, but a major one to this excellent charity”.
A political dimension was added at this stage. Alderman Stephen Moutray proposed an amendment that instead of “calling on the British Government”, the council should write to “the appropriate department of government”. He added, “Making a vague call wouldn’t have any effect. The power is with the Treasury and they are the ones we should write to, in order to end this petty charge. It is a known fact that three weeks in an unpolluted atmosphere actually cleanses the immune system of these children and adds to their longevity.”
The SDLP and Alliance said they supported the principal “be it the motion or the amendment”, but the UUP’s Colin McCusker suggested that Sinn Fein’s five MPs should actually sit in Westminster, “and represent the people”. And Mr McGibbon said that all MLAs, MPs and MEPs should receive a copy of the notice of motion.
Sinn Fein said they could not support the amendment to write to Westminster, but it succeeded on a 15-10 majority. And when it became a substantive motion, it went though unanimously.
Meanwhile, Mr Devlin said that anyone wishing to support the Craigavon branch of the charity should phone him on 07765 203435 or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org