'Never again' - Hackney Speaker calls for end to bloodshed in Ukraine

Cllr Michael Desmond on a trip to Ukraine in 2014

Cllr Michael Desmond on a trip to Ukraine in 2014 - Credit: Cllr Michael Desmond

“We should not have to witness bloodshed in Europe after repeatedly saying ‘Never again’,” said Hackney’s Speaker, talking about his fears for Ukraine following several visits to the country.

Cllr Michael Desmond worked with Ukraine’s Jewish community during his previous term as Speaker, making several civic trips.

More than 600,000 refugees have fled the country, according to the UN, since Russia invaded a week ago.

Hackney Council has added its voice to the condemnation of the invasion.

Cllr Desmond is holding a reception in support of Ukraine on March 15 as part of the borough’s response.

“We can only hope that the conflict ends very soon – and those who have perpetrated war crimes are held to account,” he said.

He first visited Ukraine in 2009 as part of an outreach programme for some of its 300,000 Jewish residents - a programme that saw him return to the country many times.

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He said many of them were elderly and some were “living in difficult circumstances”.

“During the Soviet Union times, most religion was banned, the large synagogue in Kharkiv was turned into a sports hall and the Star of David sign bricked off,” he added.

“Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence, Jewish life flourished, large communities in Odessa, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Zaporozhye were able to create schools, nurseries and community facilities such as the large centre in Dnipro [in eastern Ukraine].”

He revealed that one of his friends was woken at 5am when the invasion began “by the sound of explosions” and “is very frightened and upset”.

On another visit to Ukraine during his previous term as Speaker, Desmond discussed co-operation with officials from Kharkiv and Odessa councils.

He went to one of Kharkiv’s civic buildings to meet the international secretary – a building recently destroyed by bombing.

The city is home to 1.5m people and has come under heavy fire.

Cllr Desmond said talks there eight years ago focused on Hackney’s technology sector based in and around Shoreditch.

“There are high levels of IT skills at universities there and significant research and development facilities,” he explained.

"Previously, most co-operation and partnerships had been with Germany.”

However, the talks did not progress following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“As a mark of solidarity at the time, I held a reception in the Speaker’s Parlour in 2014,” said Cllr Desmond.

“Little did I know that eight years later, I’d be doing the same thing on Tuesday 15 March.

“We are doing what we can to support and assist Ukrainians and are also raising funds for the Red Cross appeal.”

He also joined pupils from Urswick School in painting pictures on the theme of ‘peace’. The works will be photographed with the Speaker and sent to Sergey Cheremin, International Secretary of Moscow City Council, and to the Mayor of Kyiv.

The Speaker’s reception for Ukraine takes place from 6pm to 8pm at Hackney Town Hall. Anyone who wishes to attend should contact speaker@hackney.gov.uk