East Belfast Speaks Out – a low key audience asked politicians about a wide range of issues #ebso

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.

ebso panel backStephen Farry (Alliance, standing in for David Ford); Alex Attwood (SDLP); Deirdre Heenan (UU); Mark Devenport (chair); Mike Nesbitt (UUP); Theresa Villiers (Conservative, NI Secretary of State)

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.

ebso audience wideMike 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!


  • Thanks Alan.
    I was certainly expecting more people….the Fleggers and the Belmont Bowling Club were largely absent. And I thought that there would be some youthful representation from Alliance, UUP and SDLP.
    But then again Manchester United were on TV.
    Low Key.
    And I think at its best when there was more or less consensus on real issues…suicide, abortion, fuel poverty, mental health.
    There was a basic decency about the local representatives on the panel, which should not surprise.
    Mike Nesbitt was a pleasant surprise. Measured in his “political” views and decent in his “social” views. He has come a long way in two years.

  • Adding a link to FJH’s more comprehensive review of the East Belfast hustings

  • Charles_Gould

    I too think that Mike Nesbitt comes across well in these settings. He did a West Belfast Talks Back and made a positive impression.

    I actually have a theory that his worst performances are when he is being interviewed by the media, and that is somehow because they make him uncomfortable. Whether it is because he is uncomfortable being interviewed by his former profession I don’t know. But he comes across much more defensive and uncomfortable, and is inclined to say the wrong things, when interviewed by the likes of Mallie, Thompson, etc.

  • Charles_Gould

    The other theory is that hes more relaxed now because his internal critics have left the party.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Alliance can’t be in opposition unless the DUP or Sinn Féin are happy to let the other be justice minister, unless David Ford would have to quit APNI’s assembly group and sit with those opposite. Anyone who wants Alliance in the opposition must be prepared for a Sinn Féin or DUP justice minister.

  • FuturePhysicist – Alliance don’t have to offer anybody up to be Justice Minister. It would make the DUP and Sinn Fein grow up quickly if they had to figure out how to agree/share the role rather than let the institutions collapse.

  • Charles_Gould

    Alan are you putting up a TUV thread?

  • Charles_Gould

    If Alliance withdrew from the Justice Minister, surely someone from the SDLP or UUP could do it on a cross community basis?

  • This is actually quite interesting.
    Alliance have basically three attitudes to their gerrymandered advantage.
    1 they have properly a Ministry thru d’Hondt and that the Justice Ministry has been mandated to them by the Assembly (not DUP and SF)
    2 the Alliance Party have always been at a disadvantage and they will take any gerrymandered advantage going and wont apologise for it.
    3 the decency to be embarrassed….and have the fig leaf of the Common Good.

    It seems to me that putting Justice back into d’Hondt and maybe even a nod and a wink that it goes to Alliance might actually work to Alliances advantage.
    They do have competition from NI21 and it might actually be requiring a little help from UUP and SDLP …whether to get transfers to keep a seat (Strangford, East Belfast) or gain one (South Belfast, North Down).
    And if there is ever going to be an “Opposition” it would necessarily involve AP, SDLP, UUP, NI21.
    Certainly a little humility might actually help Alliance in Westminster and Assembly.
    Strutting around as the Third Party might increase their profile. But just as likely to backfire.
    I understood Stephen Farry to say that Alliance were against “Designation” yet they have Justice because of their “designation”.
    And while they might claim to be “cross community” in terms of Religion….they are not cross community being confined to the Belfast commuter belt.

  • Charles – no plans for a TUV thread as I wasn’t there and unusually the TUV didn’t send through any speeches over the weekend. Their press officer has released his speech on the TUV website as well as that of party president William Ross. No sign of any summary of party leader Jim Allister’s extemporised speech.

    A few links to News Letter articles: