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.
On 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.
Sam Thompson is an occasional blogger, writer and historian, his latest book is ‘The Lesser Evil: A Political & Military History of World War II 1937-45‘.
You can find him on Twitter at: @JarrieSam