The Press Association is running a series called The Panel, something we are keen to replication on our Slugger Radio productions. They have brought together a panel of policy experts who are “drawn from policy areas which will become key battleground issues during next month’s Assembly Election. As voters look beyond the constitutional debate which has dominated politics, our five experts will cast a critical eye over what the party manifestos have to say on health, education, the economy, crime and the environment”. They are:
HEALTH: Mary Hinds, the director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland which represents almost 13,000 nurses. A nurse for almost 29 years, she is a former director of nursing at Belfast’s Mater Hospital.
EDUCATION: Anne Moran, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ulster. She is a former head of education at the university.
ECONOMY: Fergal McCormack, managing partner of FPM Chartered Accountants in Newry in 1990. He is a member of the board of InterTradeIreland, secretary of Newry Chamber of Commerce and Trade, a past chairman of the Ulster Society of Chartered Accountants and served on the Industrial Development Board.
CRIME: Suneil Sharma, an independent member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. A property developer, he is a former Commissioner with the Commission for Racial Equality, a founding member of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities and is currently a director of the Portadown-based Preparing for Post Conflict Trust.
ENVIRONMENT: Shirley Lewis, aka “The Bag Lady”, has made it her goal to get rid of the 500 million plastic bags misused every year in Northern Ireland. A native of Ballymena, she spent 30 years living in Sydney before returning to Northern Ireland and recently received Environment and Heritage Service funding for a 16-month campaign.
On the eve of the first election manifesto launch, The Panel gave its view on their hopes for the election.
MARY HINDS (HEALTH): “The first thing that is essential is that we get devolved government. You can see talking to colleagues in Scotland and Wales that devolution there has given a huge lift to nurses, to other health professionals and to patients. It would have the same effect here.
“I would like to see a focus on public health and in particular on policies which are going to improve people’s health and well-being. Addressing those lifestyle issues will have a major impact.
“There has been huge progress on tackling smoking but we need to address alcohol and also mental health, especially those issues affecting the old and young.
“We need more nurses in our health service but we would also like to see nurses involved at every level from the hospital bed to the boardroom.”
ANNE MORAN (EDUCATION): “There needs to be more co-operation between grammar and secondary schools and across the religious divide. We have the restructuring of the education systems and I would like to see some consensus on what a single education authority will do. What we would like to see is a level of political consensus across the political parties. One of my fears is that political differences could affect the quality of children’s education.”
FEARGAL McCORMACK (ECONOMY): “My hope is that all the parties will put the economy high on their agenda. If they are going to make the step change to devolved government, we need a major injection of enterprise culture. We are going to have to encourage those who are creating wealth to put it back into the economy. Taking a look across the border, it is clear that wealth creation is key to
SUNEIL SHARMA (CRIME): “We’ve been dealing with the past which in many ways was brutal. But we have to look forward and it isn’t just about policing. There is such a broad range of issues: health, education, and especially the future of our children is what we should be focusing on. Will we have everything in place at Stormont at the appointed time? That is the 64,000 dollar question. There will be much despair if there are any more lengthy delays, but I would be optimistic.”
SHIRLEY LEWIS (ENVIRONMENT): “We face a massive environmental challenge here in Northern Ireland. Our very future is in doubt. The people we elect must be able to put aside old arguments and do their job, look after this beautiful place and its people.”