So, last week it was Alliance, this week it was the Green party’s chance to strut their stuff on the conference stage as they gathered in East Belfast yesterday. Just before his speech I caught up the party leader Steven Agnew MLA.
I began by asking him whether he believed that his European candidate, Ross Brown could do as well as he in 2009;
I hope so. When I stood I trebled the Green party’s vote from the previous election, starting from a smaller base than Ross is facing but if Ross can out do me I will be very proud of him. I think he’s got a challenge in that there will be more parties standing this time, I think I was one of seven candidates, looks like Ross could be one of anything from ten to twelve candidates.
Moving on to some policy issues, I asked him about his view about other parties in the Assembly response to the issue of Fracking;
Arlene Foster is very much in favour of Fracking. In fact I would describe her as a cheer leader for it. I think to be honest the parties are grappling with understanding the issue. It’s presented as a great economic boon for Northern Ireland but when you scratch the surface actually what you see is profits that will go out of our economy, receipts to the treasury which may not come back to Northern Ireland. The promises of jobs which have been overstated and then we see the downside which is the potential harm the farming community in the area, the potential harm to tourism in the area and these are two of our key sectors.
I pressed Agnew on the high energy prices that people in Northern Ireland face and that green subsidies might be pushing up the overall cost of energy which is hitting families and those who are in fuel poverty. Agnew replied that he accepts that the cost of energy is a problem but that Fracking will not help bring down overall costs as gas is traded on the international market which will do very little for prices here.
I wanted to ask him what it was like being the effective leader of the opposition in the Assembly since Alliance joined the Executive?
I enjoy it.I thrive in that role, it’s a challenge, but also the duty is to challenge the government. Of course, I would like a more formal position in an opposition, given for example, the one I go back to is always the programme for government when OFM/DFM presented it, the questions were exclusively from members of government parties, now that’s not democracy…but at the same time and I would include Jim Allister in this that we are punching above our weight. I think the thing we are highlighting that the government are getting wrong is really improving our democracy. It’s a challenge function that is required, you have a five party coalition and you have the strange situation that because there is no corporate responsibility they’re playing government and opposition interchangeably whenever it suits them.
I was intrigued about the relationship between the opposition MLAs and probed Agnew a bit further on how they worked together;
Certainly me and Jim Allister our politics would be vastly different but again we have a similar objective there to provide a challenge function and we do consult with each other and I have to say as well there’s quite a good just on a human level because we all recognise that at times we are excluded from speaking if for example Jim would be ahead of me in the speaking order if it’s an issue he would know I would be passionate about and was going to speak but would mean I couldn’t speak, he has stepped down for me.
Agnew explained to me that just because he dislikes Allister’s politics does not mean that he has to dislike him. Both men diverge hugely on the majority of issues but they can work together to provide opposition to the Executive. He told me that he believes that one of the problems with the current Assembly is that too many politicians take political disagreements personally and that ultimately impacts on the tone of debates.
Overall, Agnew is a very likeable politician and incredibly sincere about what he believes in. The Greens are one of the few parties that have no problem with their clothes being stolen by other parties and seeing issues they believe in being addressed. Now, whether this core belief translates into votes is another matter but watch this space..
Full audio here;
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs