The star performer of the evening was UUP leader Mike Nesbitt who defied expectations and remained cool and calm throughout the nearly two hours of discussion.
He addressed questions and comments on “unionism and the law”, parading, flags, the Ballymurphy massacre, onerous assessments for victims, mental health, welfare reform and equal marriage. [Though I’m not at all convinced by his (paraphrasing) “it’s not equal for LGB to have choice of civil partnership and marriage if straight couples have no such choice” argument.]
“Mick” (as he was referred to several times during the evening) recognised some of the questioners and used their first names. One questioner acknowledged that he’s “walked the walk” with victims when he was a commissioner. He disagreed with Mary Lou McDonald without getting angry. The audience appreciated his forthright statement that the physical attack on Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was wrong. He got applause when he disapproved of the provocative language used by one of the early questioners (the Orange Orders recent “defeat”) and when he criticised some of the welfare reform proposals. He spoke very personally about the process of Lynda’s depression being diagnosed. Without being soft or rolling over to have his tummy tickled, the UUP leader showed leadership, consideration, tact and patience. Compared with more heated and tetchy performances on
The View he must have been relieved that Hearts and Minds Mark Carruthers wasn’t in the audience with his hand up to ask a question! Noel Thompson
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein TD and vice president, was subdued but effective. Her only tricky moment came with a late question asking about the lack of a free vote in the Dáil over abortion. She referred to the consistent result of debate at Ard Fheis, and pointed to Sinn Fein’s consistent long-standing policy about this “health issue”. She (correctly) challenged Mike Nesbitt’s pitch that Sinn Fein’s proposals to take down the Union flag at Belfast City Hall had come out of the blue. (It may have been a surprise for the UUP leader, but the issue had been working through one of the council committees for over a year.) And there was no comeback from Mary Lou when Mike Nesbitt’s suggested that Sinn Fein and the DUP were at fault with OFMdFM’s lack of consultation or publication of the long overdue Sexual Orientation Strategy (that Jonathan Bell promised last year)
Parades Commission chair Peter Osborne took the opportunity to remind the audience about the relatively small proportion of parades that are deemed to be sensitive, and pointed out that the PC didn’t impose route restrictions on around a quarter of the sensitive parades. Loyalist culture was “not under threat” from the Parades Commission, with a 3% increase in loyal order parades in the 2012/13 reporting year. (Due to early Covenant centenary parades?) The parading progress in Derry/Londonderry showed that local dialogue worked. He hoped that dialogue would restart in Belfast. His message was that while it might take a while, if the stakeholders keep engaging with each other, they’ll get to a point where parading isn’t contentious. (If you listen back you’ll find he uses a Slugger favourite “whataboutery” at one point.)
Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn sat quietly on the edge of the panel for much of the evening. We learnt that his local town hall has a greater diversity of flags than Belfast, though fewer Union flags in the area. And he answered the (predictable and tediously long for the second year in a row) Palestine question saying “it’s our duty to stand with Palestinian people … if Israel continues, only right that there is a boycott”.
No questions about education. No questions about the Castlederg parade. And no cheap but topical question about MLA expenses (which would have played well with the audience given that there was no SDLP representation on the panel).
While the DUP were noticeable by their absence, the panel worked without them. The value (and expense) of the English guest – Ruth Dudley Edwards last year, Jeremy Corbin this year – has to be questioned. While the intention of providing an external perspective is laudable, the majority of questions are parochial and short of inviting the (shadow) Secretary of State the seat might be better filled by someone like Lord Alderdice.
After the overly raucous 2012 event, this year West Belfast Talks Back seemed to hit a more mature and less confrontational note. Panellists clashed and disagreed, but cat fur didn’t fly and it didn’t get personal. A welcome change.