West Belfast Talks Back … and listens attentively too

West Belfast Talks Back was a relatively sedate affair last night with listening up and numbers slightly down on previous years. You can listen back in four parts.

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.

West Belfast Talks Back panel audience

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 Hearts and Minds The View he must have been relieved that Noel Thompson Mark Carruthers wasn’t in the audience with his hand up to ask a question!

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).

West Belfast Talks Back audience questioners

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.

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  • Mary Lou pushed Nesbitt on the flags issue, including the legitimacy of Republican expectations that, one day, two flags might fly over city halls. Nesbitt fell back on the ‘there’s only one union flag defence’ of course, forgetting that one of the interesting characteristics of the UK is that it is a pluri-national state with five flags: one for each of the constituent ‘nations’ and one union flag. If this plurinational concept can apply for the UK itself, one has to ask why the plurinational tolerance for more than one flag cannot apply within one of the constituent territories.

  • St Patrick’s Saltire does not have the same status as the Scottish, English and Welsh flags but nevertheless serves a similar purpose when a distinct NI flag is required on certain official occasions.

  • son of sam

    You may or may not know this.Is there an etiquette /process for the selection of panel members?Presumably the presence of a Sinn Fein politician is a constant .Next no doubt there has to be the “statutory unionist”.After that comes an English politician/ writer.Possibly the last panel member is a wild card(eg Southern personality/politician,Alliance type, etc).Perhaps other posters can enlighten us.

  • It’s often that case the the (as you say) inevitable Sinn Fein panellist is balanced by a DUP politician. I believe the DUP didn’t make anyone available this year, but Mike Nesbitt agreed to attend. Last year there were two GB panellists (Ruth Dudley Edwards and George Galloway), other years just one. Events like East Belfast Speaks Out have experimented with larger panels, but they do become unwieldy and the number of topics decreases. Four’s a pretty good number.