Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn raised an arm as he walked up to the stage to a roar of applause – perhaps his only Blairite gesture of the evening.
The first questioner asked what hope the panel could bring to people in Palestine?
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson pointed to a lack of balance in the question, mentioned rocket attacks, saw neither side as being wholly right or wholly wrong and wanted to start from the premise that there has been loss on both sides. Corbyn spoke of his nine visits to Palestine & Israel, highlighted conditions in Gaza but saw hope in Israeli rallies showing the desire of some people to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbours. He urged a continuation of the peace process. Robinson queried the futility of boycotting Israeli goods, highlighting that some iPhone components and cancer drugs are sourced from Israel.
Next the panel ruminated on the notion of pragmatic politics and how to deal with welfare reform.
South Dublin councillor Eoin O Broin justified Sinn Féin’s stance on welfare reform. Robinson critiqued that policy as “a disservice” and suggested that the welfare reform deal contained in the Stormont House Agreement was better than Scotland, never mind England and Wales. Writer and comedian Nuala McKeever wanted an opposition that would stand up to a government that can find money for wars and banks. Corbyn balanced pragmatism with principle, but his dislike for the Conservative government’s welfare cuts was unsurprising.
Gavin Robinson was asked for his opinion on Twaddell Avenue in light of the money that has been spent policing the ongoing loyalist protest. He said “the answer to it could be a five minute parade”.
Robinson said it was positive that Health Minister’s Simon Hamilton has stated that he will make a decision on the gay blood ban based on evidence. McKeever called for religion to be separated from marriage, proposed that abortion was not a lifestyle choice and never a decision taken lightly, and ended her rant with a rallying call for religion to be taken out of schools that gained her applause. O Broin admitted that “the south is more backward” than the north (in terms of equality) and despite the recent referendum result, further equality measures are needed.
The continued use of plastic bullets was raised. Robinson regretted deaths as a result of the non-lethel weapon, but reminded the audience that they were used as an alternative to real bullets. Corbyn insisted that plastic bullets should be banned and water cannon should not be used in Northern Ireland, calling instead for intelligent policing and understanding of rioters’ motives.
Robinson got a round of applause when he admitted walking through the House of Commons’ lobby more often with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs than with MPs from the Conservative Party in government. He added: “I’m jumping through hoops for no Tory”.
Later Robinson said that he hadn’t spoken about Kincora during the Westminster election campaign to avoid politicising the issue, and commended the lobbying by both Naomi Long and Peter Robinson asking for the Boys Home to be included in the wider UK inquiry.
Referencing Monica McWilliams’ lecture last night, one of the final questioners asked for tangible policies that could improve conditions for women in Northern Ireland. The discussion missed the point of the worst abuses and descended to pondering if we were all on a continuum and should be less hung up on displaying femininity and masculinity.
Chairing the debate, Noel Thompson demonstrated his research and right from the start strongly refereed the discussion, cutting off long-winded questioners who were more fond of semicolons than question marks. Eoin O Broin was articulate and well informed, and contributed strongly at the start. But as the evening wore on, he seemed to get less time at the microphone and his presence waned.
Nuala McKeever was hesitant and brief in her early answers, largely relegating herself to the role of Corbyn’s cheerleader. As the panellists struggled to find their assigned seats on the platform, McKeever quipped “I’m further left than you Jeremy!” Towards the end she swore more and more frequently, and took issue with the Belfast Telegraph’s portrayal of women candidates and suggestions on the radio that more attractive female candidates would attract more votes.
Jeremy Corbyn was popular in the hall but his unemotional contributions were uncontroversial and his knowledge of Belfast and Northern Ireland politics seemed limited. He drew a large crowd to the event – and patiently stood while fans took selfies at the end. I was disappointed at his lack of charisma, but at the end of the two hour event, much of the audience were still convinced that he was the chosen one. Yet we’ll probably learn as much about the Labour challenger on Good Morning Ulster on Thursday morning than we did at the community hustings.
At several points in the evening Gavin Robinson had the audience eating out of his hand with a style that ranged from gentle humour to passionate explanations. But he would then veer across a line and start hectoring disruptive questioners. Nearly getting the last word, there was an audible sharp intake of breath across the hall when he suggested that Casement Park could turn into a new parkland if the development plans fall apart and the provincial stadium moved to Tyrone.
In all it was one of the better West Belfast Talks Back events of the last few years. It had none of the rudeness of George Galloway’s appearance and the audience clapped good points no matter who made them. However, it was a left of centre love in with a token unionist, and some year Féile need to steel themselves and do the unthinkable and invite the Gerry Carroll or someone from the SDLP onto the panel if they truly want to allow West Belfast to Talk Back.