Two Es in Green – Education and Economy – and a pot-shot at Minister Poots

Today’s Green Party NI conference at Stranmillis College was dominated by education and the economy rather than environmental matters. Party leader Steven Agnew reckoned that the party’s policies on environmental matters were well established.

In a series of motions during the morning private session, party delegates voted in favour of motions that called for “a single, publicly funded, secular education system”, supported “a system of secondary education based on community centre campuses” (as opposed to the use of academic selection) and desired the NI education system to more incorporate the Waldorf (or Steiner) education method.

Away from education, motions looked at the gender balance of Green Party candidates, fluoridation, right to die legislation, guidelines on access to abortion in NI as well as emergency and vacant housing, and corporation tax. Motions to recognise “the importance of public transport to economic and environmental sustainability” and make it free at the point of use for either under 25s or everybody was defeated after much debate.

A number of motions were debated (listen along) in public immediately after lunch covering a range of topics: widening taxi access to bus lanes to all taxis that are wheelchair accessible, reducing the urban speed limit from 30mph to 20mph, late night public transport provision and corporation tax. It wouldn’t be a party conference without some mention of corporation tax!

The main afternoon session returned to education with Prof Tony Gallagher (in a personal rather than QUB capacity) delivering a keynote speech (listen along) on how “we achieve a shared and inclusive education system” given the current governance of schools in NI.

A panel of practitioners from different fields joined Tony Gallagher to discuss education (at times quite robustly). Listen to part 1, part 2, part 3.

  • Father Tim Bartlett (CCMS)
  • Rev Trevor Gribben (PCI and executive member of Transferors Representatives’ Council)
  • Mark Langhammer (Assocation of Teachers and Lecturers)
  • Brian McClinton (Humanist Association and my history teacher many moons ago)
  • Mary Roulston (Millennium Integrated Primary School)

I wasn’t there during the speech or panel discussion, but you listen to the three parts here. (Watch out for the comment about children “pissing in the same pot” being a sign of integration!)

The afternoon finished with speeches from the party’s 2014 European election candidate Ross Brown and party leader Steven Agnew.

Ross has experience as an assistant economist at the Treasury in London as part of his degree course, and also spent time as an assistant clerk for the Finance and Personnel committee at Stormont.

He recently beat off competition to become the Green Party NI’s candidate for the 2014 European elections.

In his speech he highlighted that “44% of all people here are living in fuel poverty”.

Our government spends so much time dealing with the issue of identity that it is failing to solve the issues dogging our society today and has lost all concept of a vision for the future. Ask yourself this, what would really change if any one of the other parties on the Executive won every seat in our Assembly? Even the Alliance party – a party that owes its very existence to the division in our society – isn’t presenting anything different when it comes to the economy.

Every one of the Government parties are happy to offer a slice of what little we already spend on our children, the sick, the elderly and the homeless as a windfall to big businesses through lower rates of tax. This lack of vision has also meant that NI has become a follower in the world rather than a leader.

He said that the Green Party is “offering a true alternative” with its proposals which

… aims to localise rather than globalise, meaning that the Government should focus its efforts towards developing our economy not by racing to the bottom in competition with other countries on cost to attract foreign direct investment but by enhancing the domestic economy by supporting consumers to buy locally produced goods from local businesses. It’s an economic model which acknowledges that our economy is more resilient when it is localised and therefore less exposed to global shocks and systemic risks.

Ross would seek to “[work] at a European level to end the practice of harmful tax competition between EU states”.

He was optimistic about electoral success:

… in the last European election, for example, each of the three elected members for Northern Ireland received less than 12% of the first preference vote of the voting age population. We have an MEP sitting in Brussels today who was elected with the support of 7.3% of the voting population. The point is this: if you want change, it is possible. But don’t expect change if you vote for those who are already in power and don’t expect change by not voting at all!

Out of 754 MEPs in Europe, 49 are Green Party MEPs, and another 10 MEPs join them in the Green group.

We might be a small party in Northern Ireland but in Europe we belong to not only the fourth biggest group in the Parliament but the most coordinated party at a European level.

With a year and a half left before the election, Ross is up for a fight:

I would like to strongly encourage non-members that if you share our vision, agree with our principles and believe in democracy then please do get involved. Don’t expect to find quick, easy and immediate success, however. Rather acknowledge as the Chinese proverb suggests that “the man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”.

I spoke to Ross Brown earlier during the lunch break about his journey into politics and what difference he would make in Europe.

Next up was party leader Steven Agnew. [MP3] He said that Stranmillis College was “perfect setting” for the conference looking at education.

As Disraeli put it “politicians just think of the next election but statesmen think of the next generation”. The next generation has always been at the heart of Green Party policy and children have been at the heart of the conference today as we have looked at the issues that face our young people from cradle to career.

Steven said it is “a difficult time to be a young person” with rising youth unemployment and rising student debt.

All forecasts suggest that it is women and children who will be hit hardest when the cuts to social security take effect. This is why we have been resisting the UK Government’s proposals simply being copied and pasted into Northern Ireland legislation.

Good laws and good policy should be based on evidence. The work of Suzanne Zeedyk and others shows that the key development stage for children is from 0 to 6. From birth to age three is the most active period in a child’s brain development and by six years old the consequences of social disadvantage will have already been set and are much more difficult to reverse thereafter.

The failure of the Executive parties to come up with an Early Years Strategy is but one example of how they are failing children. The draft Early Years Strategy was so severely criticised that it has been scrapped altogether. It was fundamentally flawed in that it sat solely within the Department for Education meaning that the 0-6 strategy would not be taking effect until age three!

The Green Party’s challenge to this “silo mentality” is a Private Members Bill to “put a duty on government departments to plan, commission and deliver children’s services in a more co-ordinated fashion” and make cross-departmental policy making mandatory.

Steven spoke out against “demonising” young people saying that some “politicians seek to condemn our young people” rather than to celebrate them. He criticised the chair of the Justice Committee who wants the age of criminal responsibility reduced from 10 to eight.

Given some of his colleagues desire to bring back the death penalty the DUP seem to want to swap “hug a hoody” for “hang a hoody”.

Steven stated that Health Minister Edwin Poots was “unfit for office”:

The outcomes for children growing up in care in Northern Ireland are poor in terms of health, educational achievement, risk of offending and risk of suicide. However our Health Minister seeks to deny those children the opportunity of growing up in a loving family home because some of those families may not reflect the values of the minister. The minister’s decision to challenge the court ruling that unmarried couples and those in civil partnerships should be allowed to adopt is a disgrace.

The minister claims to be a protector of the unborn child but he is failing those children who have been born into families that are either unwilling or unable to meet their needs. He should be ashamed. As far as I am concerned, he is unfit for office.

Turning from “future generations to the future of the party” Steven praised Green Party councillors who “are upsetting those resistant to change and in particular our party rivals who fear that change” holding up the front cover of this week’s Spectator newspaper. (The headline of ‘Gay Marriage Proposal’ refers to councillor John Barry’s council motion.)

I am proud that our councillors are upsetting the status quo. So that instead of having to shout at the TV, people who were previously unrepresented in Northern Ireland politics now feel that their voice is being held.

We must use the momentum we have to get us into the next set of elections. You have just heard from our European election candidate – and I’m sure you’ll agree with me he is much better than the last one.

Looking to future elections:

No one gets elected for what they do over a six week election period, it is work put in on the ground over a period of years that is needed to break through into councils and ultimately to seats in the Assembly.

Earlier this afternoon I spoke to Steven Agnew about the Green Party priorities, and his view on the maturity of the Assembly.

While I was only there for a couple of periods during the afternoon, it was clearly a Green Party conference where debate and dissent was not feared, with various alternative motion amendments being discussed and disagreement embraced.

Green Party NI membership is apparently growing, and I spotted some new faces in the room. However, in common with some other parties, large numbers of members are not motivated or available to attend the annual conference. Perhaps more active in their local constituency groups, a relatively small subset of the membership are voting on the policy areas being discussed. (In contrast, a very large number of people will no doubt attend the DUP conference, but there will be no significant policy decisions.)

On the transport front, at least three delegates travelled up to the Stranmillis conference venue by bike!

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