Noel Thompson swapped the comfy chair in the Good Morning Ulster studio to be ringmaster at West Belfast Talks Back this evening with Danny Kennedy (UUP, Minister of Regional Development), Fr Tim Bartlett (Catholic Church), Rev Dr Leslie Carroll (Presbyterian) and John O’Down (Sinn Féin, Minister of Education) in front of an audience of three hundred. You can listen back to debate in two halves [two MP3s].
With no Stratagem funding this year, it was straight into questions with no warm up comedy act. No surprise that the first question was about the current conflict in Gaza. Lesley Carroll found it “shocking that people take sides” about the Gaza conflict and sought to reframe how we look at complex issues. She recalled her experiences in Bethlehem earlier this year, watching a riot outside her hotel. She called for people – including us – to listen to each other’s narratives in order to re-examine their own narrative and in light of what they’ve heard to change their narrative … something which we’ve only learned in part to do here. John O’Dowd said it needed – like other issues – to be taken out of Orange and Green politics.
Lesley Carroll described herself as “pro-Palestinian in terms of the politics but against violence”; she would prefer to have protests against violence [rather than protests that were pro Palestine]. From the floor, Cllr Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit) raised the issue of boycotting Israel and Israeli good. Tim Bartlett spoke against the idea of a boycott on the basis that Jewish farmers would be punished rather than the stronger Israeli defence and IT economies.
An LGBT activist changed the subject to ask “When are we going to see progress in the North on LGBT issues given that progress only seems to come through the courts?” Fr Tim Bartlett’s recalled his “fascinating conversation” last week after the GLYNI Debate when he joined ten or so trans and gay young people in McDonalds for a ninety minute discussion and a follow-up visit to Cara-Friend this morning. Challenged about the lack of sexuality and gender education in Catholic schools, he retorted that he “passionately” wanted schools to “offer a gold standard” of pastoral care and training.
Danny Kennedy bumbled a little as he explained his personal position against “gay marriage” and omitted to elaborate on other aspects of gay rights or mention Jeff Dudgeon! Lesley Carroll was remarkably forthright in her comments saying that she was “embarrassed that the Presbyterian Church has not yet formally engaged with LGBT community” more than a year after promising to do so (at its June 2013 General Assembly).
As the topic closed, Tim Bartlett chose to raise the topic of Asher’s “gay cake” and recounted some comments made by the Equality Commission’s Chief Commissioner at the GLYNI Debate last week about the process that led to a legal letter being sent to Ashers.
A question to Danny Kennedy asked about a recent statement in the media about having to turn out street lights (and stop some grass cutting) as a result of the June monitoring round (that was discussed by the Executive last week in July). Danny explained his budgetary dilemma and the limited flexibility in selecting services that could be cut to save the £5m is loses given what John O’Dowd called the “reconfiguration of Executive priorities”. Tim Bartlett said he personally supported anyone who would stand in the way of implementing welfare reform. Lesley Carroll said it was one of a number of political roadblocks that needed to be addressed to break political stalemates. John O’Dowd seemed to suggest that the health and education budget protection was about keeping people in good health and educating them well in order to keep or get people in employment and rebuild the economy … as well as not giving in to welfare reform.
Danny Morrison surprised the panel by telling them to imagine they lived in West Lothian and asked how they would vote in September’s Scottish independence referendum. Lesley Carroll would vote for devo max; John O’Dowd would vote Yes; Tim Bartlett refused to commit (and then strangely reminded audience he was for a United Ireland); and Danny Kennedy was a No. Danny got booed when he added that he was pleased that those seeking Scottish independence hadn’t resorted to armalites. A straw poll of the audience showed about three quarters in favour of Scottish independence. From the floor Rev Dr John Dunlop reminded everyone that if they disliked the actions of the Tory government now, it would be worse when it was only NI+Wales+England.
The failure of the Haass talks was discussed. Danny Kennedy got light applause when he said “no party has worked harder and has it cost more to achieve political peace in Northern Ireland than the UUP”.
While the debate only covered a narrow number of topics, the audience seemed satisfied, and the inclusion of the two clerics on the panel certainly led to some less predictable answers to the set pieces of Gaza/Palestine and LGBT rights.
PS: St Louise’s must win a prize for the shiniest floor
in any school in the north in Northern Ireland anywhere! under John O’Dowd’s control
PPS: The panel were (mostly) impressed with Brian Spencer’s caricatures …