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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty