Back for the fourth time, the hustings event in East Belfast offered the local community (and hangers on from further afield) the opportunity to stick up their hand and put any question to the political panel.
There was an expectation that the Ashfield Boys School assembly hall would be flooded with flag protesters. Jamie Bryson tweeted that he was going to attend, but was held up and didn’t make it. The organisers had prepared for large numbers, and had planned to avoid the evening becoming a single issue discussion.
In the end, other than EBSO regular Jim Wilson, there seemed to be a virtual boycott by local hard line loyalists, and no significant PUP presence. A real missed opportunity for “the people” to put the issues facing their communities directly to the Secretary of State. Few Short Strand residents attended this year, perhaps since there was no Sinn Fein representative on the panel.
There was a cluster of ex-Ulster Unionists with Basil McCrea, Trevor Ringland and Bill White lurking in the audience. Oddly there were very few politicians – I spotted Basil and Chris Lyttle – in the audience: no PUP Councillor John Kyle, no Niall Ó Donnghaile form Sinn Fein, no UUP Michael Copeland. And definitely a low profile from the DUP’s’ Sammy Douglas and Robin Newton. Even the SDLP’s Séamas de Faoite was missing.
Over two hours, the audience asked about …
- Parades Commission, and the Secretary of State’s decision – or lack of decision – to simply reappoint the existing commission for an additional year.
- A formal opposition was “the next big step to normalising politics in NI” according to Mike Nesbitt; there was need for cross party consensus before reform (Theresa Villiers); could party politics be set aside for long enough to make opposition work asked Deirdre Heenan. Alex Attwood quipped that there wasn’t much debate within the SDLP about opposition, but he didn’t get a chance to expand upon his intriguing insight.
- Mike Nesbitt says that Attorney General John Larkin “did an Eames/Bradley” when he made his comments, with a basket of reasonable comments and one explosive one that made the headlines.
- Alex Attwood was optimistic about Haass/O’Sullivan talks: says despite a bomb in Belfast, “this is best moment in 15 years to deal comprehensively and ethically with the past”.
- The panel was unanimously against Saturday’s planned flag protest parade in Belfast City Centre. Relatively few in the audience chose to voice strong support for the parade. Mike Nesbitt reminded loyalists that they have an economic stake in the city – in work, or looking for jobs – and we “need brain not brawn” around flag protest.
- Was Scottish Independence an opportunity for democratic renewal across the UK? Theresa Villiers reckoned creating employment was more of a priority than English regional assemblies.
- Welfare reform. Haven’t the pilot schemes been a bit of a disaster and NI is lucky it has delayed so long asked Mark Devenport. The Secretary of State loyally defended her government’s policy. Living wages. Cuts to benefits.
- There was a question about family law and fathers having access to children.
- Why aren’t abortion rights being dealt with properly at the NI Assembly, which instead is used for beauty contests that objectifies women? This was the moment that Theresa Villiers came to life as he explained her long-held pro-choice views and empathised with women making tough choices and tough journeys.
- Ghost bikes. Joined up health/mental health services and Dundonald hospital.
With Alliance, SDLP and UUP representatives on the panel, EBSO held a mirror up to any possible Stormont opposition.
Mike Nesbitt was firm but moderate. Stephen Farry was moderate and almost invisible at the end of the platform. Alex Attwood was up for a bit of rough and tumble and gleefully sparred with the Secretary of State and Deirdre Heenan. But the three local parties neither aimed nor landed few punches on each other.
The smaller crowd may well have led to a better level of political engagement and quality of listening. Mark Devenport chaired proceedings and covered an even larger range of issues than normal. Some in the audience may have felt that their specific issues were overly simplified as the chair gathered up audience questions and later fired them at panel members.
East Belfast Speaks Out demonstrated that politics doesn’t have to be aggressive. It also showed that people aren’t that keen to hold politicians to account. No one asked the panel to explain exactly what their party had specifically delivered through the Executive to make East Belfast a better place for the ordinary man or woman.
The evening also proved that many communities are turned off by politics (or politicians?) and choose to disengage. Even people who are willing to parade on a cold Saturday afternoon didn’t bother to turn up. On her drive back to Hillsborough last night, the Secretary of State may have been left wondering what all the fuss was about in East Belfast when she got such an easy time at the hustings!