QT: a lot improved, a lot more to do…

Slugger no more has an inside track on what audience questions come up on Question Time than our politicians (or indeed the producers) have. But I thought we were on for a Bingo call last night, when the first question was about the poisoning of Alexander Litveninko. Even better when Peter Hain came out almost word for word with Pete’s correction of my public health question in the crib sheet thread.Another obvious parallel between the Slugger thread and QT was the determination of certain members of the audience to draw tenuous parallels between Russia and Northern Ireland. Though Martin McGuinness had his hands full with an audience member from West Belfast who argued rather forcibly that Sinn Fein brooked no dissent in her neck of the woods, he did reasonably well on the topic. Her impact was probably doubled by the glaring fact that none of the main political parties could provide a woman spokesperson. But then he just seemed to fade from view.

The bed and breakfast question was interesting, not least for the contrast it set between Northern Ireland’s social mores are those in Britain – check out the audience reactions that made it through to the BBC Question Time website.

Some people I’ve spoken to before and since think that sending Question Time out into politically discrete parts of the UK is a supreme folly, since none of the local players are familiar enough with the vagaries of policy detail on issues like Council Tax to successfully challenge a political heavyweight like Hain for instance. The near exception was Trimble, who, momentarily, had him in retreat over his implementation of the anti discrimination in Bed and Breakfast in Northern Ireland but not in Britain.

In turn the Secretary of State probably had his best moment on council tax (33.04 mins in), which led to the recounting of some harsh realities:

My constituents pay more than double the household charges that you all pay, and water charges are not paid in Northern Ireland. The average bill for water charges is around £1,400/1,500 a year. In Northern Ireland it is about £650! It’s the big picture.

He continued:

Some people have made allegations that we are trying to ram down undemocratic government in Northern Ireland. I’m trying to restore self government in Northern Ireland. These decisions I want to be taken by the local politicians around the table.

He went on to make some of the most cogent points about what has improved in Northern Ireland as a result of the Peace Process:

– the IRA’s war is over

– its weapons have been decommissioned

– the marching season this season is the most most peaceful on record. Not one soldier on the streets to back up the police.

– Ian Paisley meeting the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh

– the intention of Ian Paisley to nominate as First Minister and to nominate Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Northern Ireland’s politicians to take charge of their future”.

On the whole, it was a vast improvement in performance from the last two times out. Durkan and Trimble were good on detail (especially on the Russian question), even if they lacked colour. What Donaldson deferred to Trimble on detail, he made up for in passion, especially on Iraq.

It will perhaps raise the perennial question within the UK production team as to whether local politicians can ever really cut it with an audience (even if they all have a theoretical position at Westminster) who’s taste and passions are a great deal more catholic than those to which they are accustomed to cater.

It is not easy to extemporise in front of a live audience, on subjects that professionally you are rarely, if ever, tested on. But it is clear that our politicians need to get some practice in doing actual politics, and get to grips with the fine line of detail. They need to come out as individuals with intrinsically interesting and useful things to say. Otherwise, they run the supreme risk of any serious politician in any ‘normal’ democracy: boring the public into a soporific stupor.

In the end, the single transferable rant that so often appears to pass muster in Northern Ireland will just not suffice in the more peaceable times to come.

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  • Pete Baker

    Thanks, Mick.. I was trying to forget..

  • McGrath

    Oh to be so bored, I welcome the day for more normal diversified debates. Even if the debate is about assessing the risk of an ex KGB agent pissing on you.

  • Pete Baker

    Although, I was surprised that no-one submitted, or possibly more likely no-one selected, a question to Peter Hain on deliberately obstructing the course of justice..

  • ma

    everything has been said already really.

  • slug

    This felt like a transitional QT.

    Gone is the old NI tribal tension in the audience. Gone is the novelty of having a DUP and a Sinn Fein on the same discussion. Gone was the whataboutery.

    Yet to come was an ability to care about rest of world issues for their own sake, rather than as they relate to NI; yet to come are the new politicians, the female politicians.

    So while the GB comments on the bbc website were no longer about the tribal tensions, they now noted the lack of women on the panel and the lack of ability to talk about wider issues.

    So I would agree with Mick’s title.

  • dpef

    Are Trimble and Donaldson indicative of general Unionist positions on gay rights?

    Christian sensibilities take precedence


    If gays don’t have rights in Britain why are they applied here?

    The amount of clapping from the audience on denying homosexuals rights was embarrassing.

    Almost as embarrassing as the Norn Iron is just like Russia idiocy.

    btw: why does Durkan cover his red nose and cheeks with powder on British national but not for local media interviews?

    The George Best factor? We all love someone that looks like an old soak? Alban is perfecting the bulbous red nose and blotched cheeks look these days too IMO. Maybe it’s an election tactic?

    And before I’m edited I’m not saying they are alcholics, just that age and stress may be giving that appearance.

    Even Ian Paisley jnr. looked like he’d a night on the tiles as he went into this mornings DUP meeting.

    ‘Tiredness’ seems to be catching up with some people.

  • George

    Are we saying that, after 85 years, Northern Ireland’s polity have finally progressed to such a degree that they are no longer a total embarrassment on Question Time?

    Buala bos!

  • heck


    I must comment on your “draw tenuous parallels between Russia and Northern Ireland” comment. I was one of those who drew parallels between the murder of Alexander Litveninko and the murder of Pat Finucane. I see nothing tenuous at all about that. Both involve the security services of each country going out and eliminating people who they consider a nuisance. To ignore the similarities is to allow British politicians to engage in disgusting displays of moral outrage.

    I remember watching Jack Straw at the UN lecturing the Syrian government about not fully supporting an investigation into Syrian intelligence support for terrorist murders in Lebanon and wanting to reach through the TV screen and “knock his melt in” (to use a Nor Iron phrase.)

    People from Norn Iron have a unique awareness of the involvement the British government in murder and we should not let them away with hypocritical self righteous condemnation of others. To allow this hypocrisy is to allow a totally dishonest argument to go unanswered.

  • Mick Fealty

    In generality, I am sure parallels exist. But, more often than not, the more you look at generalities in detail the weaker they become.

    For instance, there’s an interesting link in the crib sheet to a blog on antiwar.com which casts some doubt on the media truism that it was the state that ordered him poisoned.

    Now, I’ve no idea who much water his theory holds, but his detailed reading is both interesting and useful. And it forms of something of a corrective to the easy reading versions of the Big Media.

    Of course it is buyer beware when you go hunting outside your own area of expertise, but when I’m searching for good reading material, I usually leave the generalised narratives to one side, and go for falsifiable detail.

    So even if the parallels that you mention do exist, they often only exist powerfully so long as the detail remains pixelated by distance and the readers’ general unfamiliarity with the ‘foreign’ context.

    Does that make sense?

  • Cato

    When I think about the murder of Alexander Litveninko and similar murky assasinations, I remember my predecessor in the praetorship Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla and how he used to ask: Cui bono?
    Even though I am a Roman statesman, I had never heard of Mr Litveninko until this cruel poisoning and I would hazard a guess that applies to most people throughout the Empire. He is now headline news from Gaul to the lands of the effeminate, trouser-wearers.
    Does Mr Putin benefit in any way from silencing in a very public manner a man whose utterances were so faint? It may be that in those lands where the sun rises first, his dissent was louder, but neverthless, I fail to see the likelihood of the Russian governmental hierarchy having their hands on this.
    While no fan of the government of those frozen lands, I venture that its enemies were responsible for this incident.
    The sad thing is that those people were relying on the stupidity of the plebs and have not been disappointed.

  • It’s good that Question Time is no longer confined to a London studio. At the same time, the further one gets out of London, the more likely it is that the local studio audience will have different priorities and concerns to those watching elsewhere in the UK. I don’t just mean here the traditional Ulster issues. There are several social and economic issues of vital importance to a Northern Ireland audience that do not arouse the same passions elsewhere.

    I thought the choice of questions by the producers was woeful. I can’t believe that Russia, Trident or Iraq rank very highly with a Belfast audience. The bed-and-breakfast question obscured a wider issue: the advance of the gay rights agenda under the guise of human rights. Jeffrey came nearest to dealing with this point but he sounded too much like a Christian firebrand on a Twelfth platform. Trimble actually agreed in principle with the Sexual Orientation Regulations, an interesting position for a UUP spokesman and perhaps something the DUP could use during an election campaign.

    Hain did get an easy ride but that was partly because there were no specific questions on rates, water or academic selection, all matters of great concern to the audience. One also suspects that if, say, Bob McCartney had been on the panel, he would have made Hain look very silly indeed.

  • heck


    I read the link and I still don’t understand what you are saying. It just reinforces my point that the moral outrage against Putin by the British establishment and MSM is pure hypocritical bull s***.


    what the hell are you on about?


    Russia, Trident or Iraq — that is my point

    Russia—- -Britain opposes state sanctioned murder– hypocrites
    Trident— -Britain kills 650000 in Iraq and lectures Iran over nuclear weapons-hypocrites
    Iraq ——- Blah Blah Blah Britain is opposed to violence –hypocrites.

  • heck

    Whataboutery from a republican is too dull for a Saturday night’s entertainment. I prefer Strictly Come Dancing.