From giant rats to Noel Thompson: A Spotlight on democracy…

I’ve seen many things on the streets of Belfast, but two large rats, both bigger than Chihuahuas advancing towards me on the footpath was a new one. The filthy weather – ice-cold driving rain – had probably flooded their usual home and I supposed they were looking for shelter. When the rats noticed me they froze and we entered a kind of Mexican stand-off, each waiting on the other to retreat. At that moment, cold, wet and faced with large rodents, I wondered if it had been worthwhile to have spent the evening at the recording of Spotlight.

spotlight trailerOn the plus side, the tickets were free and Spotlight and shows like it, are a form of popular democracy that give people an opportunity to see and question the politicians who represent them. It is, I suppose, the modern version of ancient Greek democracy where every citizen had a chance to speak.  Besides, it is interesting to see behind the scenes of things.

The audience goes through a warm-up which involves a number of them acting as panelists and fielding questions, a process that not only gives the backstage people to check sound and light levels, but gets the audience in the right frame of mind. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of knowledge on display and the interest in non-parochial subjects such as climate change, a subject well beyond the control of Stormont but one most people thought the NI Executive should be playing a part in.

Eventually, we got down to business. The panel was the usual blend of green and orange with someone, in this case the Alliance justice minister, David Ford, representing the squeezed middle-ground. Jim Allister and Jeffrey Donaldson were there for the union and Patricia MacBride a former victim’s commissioner and Declan Kearny, national chairperson of Sinn Fein were there for the republic, though not perhaps the existing one. I watched carefully as the panel took their seats. There are stories of unionists snubbing Sinn Fein members at Stormont and although Jim and Jeffrey did not engage in long conversations with Patricia and Declan, they did, as far as I could tell, offer the pleasantries of the evening.

The show kicked off with a question on Stormont’s latest expenses scandal, food and drink to Jim Allister, who used his courtroom skills to put Declan Kearney in the dock of public opinion over 700 grand that Sinn Fein seems to have paid itself for mysteriously undocumented research . His response – that no rules were broken, sounded eerily similar to Tory MPs justifying duck houses and garden moats but whether Sinn Fein will be punished at the polls is doubtful.  A question on 1916 commemorations brought forth the expected sparks and one audience member tried to use the concept of a shared future to roast once again, the ‘why won’t they share a road for ten minutes’ chestnut. Thankfully Noel Thompson spared us an unwelcome diversion up Twaddell Avenue and all that goes with it. The show ended on a lively note with the failure of a recent bill amendment that would have allowed abortion in very limited circumstances. It is a subject that shows all the symptoms of developing the same kind of political heat in Northern Ireland as it does in the United States.

I was impressed with all of the panel members, each argued their particular point of view well but the debate also highlighted why many people are turned off by politics. There was a distinct tendency to play to the gallery and score points by embarrassing or attacking their opponents. Many of the responses were rehearsed, oft repeated party lines and the frequent outrage seemed affected. In truth, I was more impressed by the audience, particularly the young people who wanted to talk about issues that affect their lives more directly than the symbolism of anniversaries. Many of them can expect to live to their nineties or longer and climate change will be impacting them when today’s old and middle-aged are in their graves. Access to abortion is a tremendously important issue for many young women and the failure of Stormont to produce a thriving economy with jobs worthy of the talents and education of our young people clearly rankles with them. Those thoughts made me optimistic of a future where people engage in real politics. Deciding that the evening had indeed been worthwhile, I pressed on through the rain and the sewer rats slinked away into the night.


  • chrisjones2

    Did you think the rats might have added more to the debate?

  • the rich get richer

    What sort of politics would you say the rats had ? Could you give an educated guess just by looking at them ?

  • WindowLean

    Depends how close together their eyes were

  • John Collins

    No rats could look as bad as the TUV or Sinn Fein, so that should narrow the field.

  • Jollyraj

    I’ve never got my head around that one. Is it us or the rebbies that has the wide-set eyes?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Two young people stuck out for me but not for good reasons;
    The first was the young man who reeled off a word perfect unionist approved speel about the parades co mission being a SF puppet or such like. If it is a SF group then why have so few parades been banned over the years? It would suggest that perhaps sf don’t hate parades as much as unionists think OR possibly it’s not a sf controlled group.

    Secondly was the young girl who seemed to confuse a shared future for making people do things they don’t want to do e.g . Arlene not going to Easter rising commemorations.

    Why would a unionist want to go to a republican event any more than a white Russian (descendant) would want to celebrate the Bolshevik rising? (Incidentally I think she should go, just for political brownie points but she’s by no means obliged to).

    That’s not what a shared future is about. And neither are flags flying all over the place or naming a park after mccreesh.

    After that i got bored and watched animatrix. If ever there was proof to argue against the matrix’s existence it would be northern Ireland as the machines could never dream up something so bonkers…

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Ask Willie Frazer, he knows for certain when someone is ‘fen**n lookin’…

  • Jollyraj

    I’m afraid I don’t have the gentleman’s number. Wonder if he reads Slugger. Are any of you gents Willie F in disguise? My money’d be on it being Anglo Irish – part of a mysterious Trojan Donkey strategy 😀

  • Kev Hughes

    ‘If ever there was proof to argue against the matrix’s existence it would be northern Ireland as the machines could never dream up something so bonkers…’

    You, Sir, won the Internet for me today, thank you!

  • Jarl Ulfreksfjordr

    The young person who posed the question rather set her tone by referring to attending “celebrations” of 1916 in her question.

    What “brownie” points do you consider accrue to a politician who does something that would transparently go against their oft stated principles? Such behaviour would strike me as, at best, political posturing , at worst rank dishonesty.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The brownie points would be the political posturing and rank dishonesty.

    Sf do it and people seem to swallow it, i’d advocate a similar approach of outreach ping pong from unionists just so that Martin mcguinness isn’t lauded as a saint for saying that he’d go to an orange parade.

  • Twilight of the Prods

    …if you dropped a loaf of bread and a flag in front of them, those rats would go for the bread every time. We may have no reason to sneer at the beasties.