Even without the election posters sitting against the wall, the gentle gurgling of a baby in the audience and the bikes chained to the railings outside the hotel are tell tale signs that this is the Green Party manifesto (PDF) launch.
Their theme is Zero Waste.
We hate waste, wherever it is found, and pledge to bring about an end to the waste of money, time and opportunities at Stormont. By taking a Zero Waste approach to our economy, society and environment, we can make Northern Ireland a better place for us all to live.
It’s clear from the faces at the top table and the photos in the printed manifesto that despite the full slate of 18 gender balanced candidates, Belfast South (deputy leader Clare Bailey) and Belfast East (Ross Brown) are the best chances for adding to Steven Agnew’s electoral success.
Asked about former Green Party leader Brian Wilson standing as an independent candidate in North Down, Steven Agnew responded:
I owe a lot to Brian … and I’ve sought to continue the good work he did as a Green MLA. I’m confident I can retain my seat in North Down. If he does get elected, it will not be at my expense.
The manifesto reminds voters about Green Party achievements during the last Assembly term: the Children’s Services Cooperation Act, exposing “the systemic failure of our planning system that sees unauthorised dredging in Lough Neagh, illegal dumps such as Mobuoy flourishing and oil drilling in Woodburn”.
The manifesto applies ‘Green’ thinking to a range of issues. Like many (most) manifestos, costings are not given. While no one expects to see Green Party MLAs sitting around the NI Executive table in May 2016, there are pointers to some of the private members bills they may seek to introduce if they are amongst the 108 candidates elected to Stormont in two week’s time.
The Green Party want to see a fully integrated education system – “school should be about sharing experiences, not just buildings” – as well as increased investment in early years; flexible starting age for primary school; free (and nutritious) school meals for every child in P1-P3; community-centred campuses; and the development of GCSE and A-Levels in sign-language.
The health service “should start with keeping people healthy, beginning with exercise, a good diet and a healthy lifestyle” [Ed – bloggers beware!] and be patient-focussed rather than leaving people “languishing on waiting lists”. The party oppose privatisation of the health service; would retain free prescriptions (but introduce a voluntary payment scheme for those who wish to contribute to the cost); increase physical education at early age in schools; back calls for dedicated international mental health centre in NI; introduce legislation to support mothers who wish to breastfeed; extend the 1967 Abortion Act to NI; and support dignity in dying.
On justice the party defends the UK Human Rights Act; would raise the age of criminal responsibility; would initiate reform of libel laws; expand community policing; and ensure a greater focus on tackling domestic and sexual violence and supporting victims.
The Green party want a better connection made between investment in arts and the contribution it makes to the economy through job creation and leisure. They would develop ‘art contract clauses’ similar to ‘community benefit clauses’ for multi-million pound film and screen projects in NI.
On equality, they will bring forward legislation for equal marriage; end the blood man for men who have sex with men; update the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow self-declaration by transgender and non-binary people; implement the measures in the Racial Equality Strategy; and encourage more men to avail of parental leave.
Around democratic structures the Green Party want to remove community designation in the Assembly and replace it with two thirds majority decision making. They want all political donations over £500 to be made public. Parties should be required to stand a minimum of one third female candidates in Assembly elections with a reduction in Financial Assistance to Political Parties (FAPP) for those who fail to do so. The voting age would be reduced to 16.
Sustainability is placed at the centre of their planning policies. They oppose further out of town retail in favour of town centre approach; support minimum sustainable building standards for new homes; encourage energy conservation and use of renewables in domestic and commercial planning policy; and seek an integrated flood prevention and mitigation strategy.
The party want to see 2,000 units of energy efficient social housing built a year to meet housing need and tackle homelessness. They would abolish the priority need category for homeless applicants so that every homeless person can seek help.
Around transport, the party want to see spending rebalanced towards public transport and ‘active travel’. Greenways should be expanded to encourage cycling, spending increased on cycle infrastructure throughout NI to the value of £25 per person; expand public transport in rural areas; and a default 20mph speed limit in residential areas and near schools.
The party would introduce an independent Environmental Protection Agency; set a 70%+ household recycling and composting target by 2025; introduce deposit schemes for bottles, tins and tyres; extend the plastic bag levy to other packaging; promote retention of hedgerows; and back the creation of national parks in NI.
On energy, the Green Party would bring forward a Climate Change Bill and create a world class renewable energy industry (creating jobs and exports). The party still advocate the full implementation of the Green New Deal home energy efficiency scheme (promising creation of 15,00 jobs) as well for a “properly calculated living wage”. They oppose the reduction in Corporation Tax, and seek more accessible and affordable childcare provision to suit all working patterns.
Disclaimer: I cycled to the launch … having parked by car on the Lisburn Road …