The first attempt at holding an Assembly Roadshow in East Belfast had about fifty in the audience facing Dawn Purvis, the sole MLA to turn up as the remainder of the panel stayed “up on the hill” debating the enabling Justice Bill long into the wee small hours.
Five MLAs turned out for tonight’s return match in the Park Avenue Hotel. And while Sinn Fein’s panellist cried off, and the speaker Willie Hay the real folk missing were members of the public, with only 15-20 in attendance.
“Acting as ringmaster”, Fearghal McKinney introduced the panel. Aged 46, Thomas Burns is apparently the SDLP’s youngest MLA, representing South Antrim. He was joined by the Robin Newton (DUP MLA for East Belfast and a Junior Minister), Dawn Purvis (leader of the PUP and MLA for East Belfast), David McNarry (UUP MLA for Strangford) and Trevor Lunn (Alliance MLA for Lagan Valley).
Phyllis had made a long and ultimately frustrating journey to attend the previous roadshow to put her question about an ongoing issue of intimidation to Sinn Fein. She was back tonight, similarly foiled by Sinn Fein’s non-attendance – though her question was noted and a promise made to pass it on.
The next substantial topic was around the effectiveness of Assembly committees. Scrutinisers without the teeth to censure ministers or veto departmental policy? Or bodies with strong role to challenge, garner consensus and influence through amendments?
The most interesting comments came from a fractious David McNarry who explained his satisfaction in extracting information from the departmental civil servants who come in front of his committees to give evidence and supply data. He described how he enjoyed
“stretching the bojos”
More charitably, he commended the scrutinising abilities of fellow panellist Dawn Purvis as well as Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin.
Confronted by the life expectancy variation along a two mile stretch of the Newtownards Road in East Belfast, Robin Newton was initially sceptical about the figures. Dawn Purvis made her apologies and left for another engagement around this time: her potential contribution was sorely missed. While the four remaining panellists could list potential ways of improving the socio-economic deficit in some areas, their answers didn’t come across as wholeheartedly grasping the injustice and scale of the problem.
Next on the agenda was the issue Civil Service back pay. When would it be debated in the Assembly. During the panel’s answers, it slipped out that Civil Service Back Pay had been discussed at today’s Executive meeting, that “it was well received” with one minister voicing some concerns and had got the thumbs up. Good news for the civil servants in the audience who continued to feel the edge of McNarry’s shovel as he dug himself deeper and deeper into a hole criticising them.
The panel broadly agreed that Employers for Childcare’s assertion that Northern Ireland lacked adequate provision of high quality child care. Gordon Brown had signalled his intention to phase out the childcare voucher scheme. The panel attributed the possible U-turn to electoral pragmatism and the threat of a back bench revolt. And it led to the panel questioning the Assembly’s Director General Trevor Rainey on whether the Assembly offer child care, and some discussion on whether the Civil Service should be offering on-site child care facilities.
The penultimate question about who will benefit from the UUP’s link-up with the Conservatives drew an initial response of “David Cameron!” from the UUP’s David McNarry before be went on to outline the party position. Trevor Lunn quipped that it “will benefit the DUP and Alliance”.
Lady Sylvia Hermon’s dog walking on the morning of the UUP conference got a mention too. And she cropped up in the final light-hearted question asking who panellists would bring with them to the jungle.
- Thomas Burns didn’t watch that kind of show.
- Robin Newton would take his wife.
- David McNarry offered to take Sylvia Hermon “to help her”.
- Trevor Lunn admitted that his wife wasn’t fond of creepie crawlies and would instead take someone like Kate Moss.
So after more than twenty roadshows in 2009, the set was deconstructed for the last time. The Bangor event seemed to be the best attended with over a hundred. While tonight’s swan song in East Belfast had plenty of audience contribution and robust questioning, the cost per head of the engagement might be embarrassingly high.