While James Smyth claims not to know what a blog is, he knows all about community. Along with three others, he came up with the idea of East Belfast Speaks Out – an open forum for members of the public to come along and put questions to public figures. Over 130 people, young and old, turned up at Ashfield Boys High School this evening to hear local politicians, a shadow NI minister and the local head of Amnesty answer their questions.
- To provide access to leading politicians to discuss issues of general concern to the public
- To encourage active participation in the political sphere from a cross-section of what can be seen to be a currently disappointed electorate/population.
Conor Bradford chaired the public session that followed, asking the panellists what they would like Northern Ireland to be like in 2015.
- Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP MP, MLA & Councillor) wants NI to be the best place to live in the UK.
- Naomi Long (Alliance MLA & Councillor, and not speaking tonight as Lord Mayor) wants to see a society that will follow through with change and move forward not back.
- Laurence Robertson (Conservative MP & Shadow Minister for NI) wants devolution to succeed.
- Gerry Kelly (Sinn Féin MLA & Junior Minister) wants “equality” to be a word owned by everybody.
- Patrick Corrigan (the token non-politico and NI Programme Director for Amnesty International) wants devolution and politics to be seen to be working, strong rights protection in place, and for NI to have a place on the global stage where we aren’t just “on the take from everyone else”.
The body language was interesting, with Jeffrey Donaldson leaning back in his chair to quip a remark towards Gerry Kelly - very familiar, as if they were both in the Junior Ministerial gang. And the Tory on the end beside Gerry Kelly - a position you wouldn't have found Norman Tebbit in.
Questions followed from the floor, starting with whether loyalist working class areas were being left behind, whether the media was judge and sometimes executioner, and whether the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was effective as so far it had only addressed loyalist killings.
Laurence Robertson said that it would be Tory policy to draw a line under the past, with no new inquiries. He had problems with the cost of the HET and the way it tied up the police when they “have better things to do”.
Naomi Long felt that there was a lot of good community work going on that was ignored by the media. “I agree entirely with Naomi” said Jeffrey Donaldson before going on to explain his view “The media are part of the problem in Northern Ireland – everything is negative, creating an atmosphere that is unhelpful. Should be a balance, but isn’t.” The view of the two TV crews, two radio reporters and newspaper journalists isn’t known!
Donaldson went on to challenge the view from the floor that the NI parties were at loggerheads: “We agree on more things than we disagree on.” He also disputed the perception that “garden centre protestants have deserted the ballot box”, suggesting that less than 30% of working class unionists now voted.
At this stage the event had been going an hour and we’d had one funny warm-up, some good-humoured introductions, one question from Conor Bradford and only one question from the public.
The HET discussion led on to talk about the costly Bloody Sunday inquiry, the issue of truth, Gerry Kelly being very open about his past (which didn’t someone sitting at the back reading out his criminal history as part of a question half an hour later), and a suggestion from the floor that it was about time Gerry Adams admitted being a member of the IRA. Patrick Corrigan commented:
“I think there are people up on the hill, at Westminster, in the MOD, in all arts and parts, who don’t want the truth coming out.”
Perhaps in another preview of what effect a Conservative government might have on Northern Ireland, Laurence Robertson felt that there was a strong case for NI to be an “enterprise zone”, with a reduced corporation tax to attract business.
The 11-plus got a brief airing in a question from a school girl. We discovered that Gerry Kelly failed his and Naomi Long passed hers. Her view is that regulated selection is better than this year’s unregulated selection, and that a practical solution would be to regulate selection for two years while all party talks were held to resolve the issue.
PUP Councillor John Kyle (“the gentleman in the red tie”) asked about the City Airport runway extension. Jeffrey Donaldson admitted that he had lobbied the environment minister (Edwin Poots or Sammy Wilson before him?) on the merits of holding a public inquiry. There needed to be a complementary strategy for Belfast’s two airports, offering proper competition with Dublin airport (which takes 30% of NI’s flying passengers). He felt that the runway extension was more about Ryanair trying to knock Aer Lingus out of Northern Ireland.
The evening rounded up with an unexpected mention of NAMA. If some of the Titanic Quarter debt ends up in NAMA, would the politicians on the panel lobby to change the TQ scheme whose 8000 apartments no longer look attractive to use it instead for a multi-sports stadium? Jeffrey Donaldson liked the idea, but thought there would never now be agreement around a multi-sports stadium.
It’s interesting to make the inevitable comparison between tonight’s community-organised panel and the Northern Ireland Assembly roadshow that was held in East Belfast last week. There was some overlap in the questions asked and topics covered. One overlap in the invited panel too.
In terms of public engagement with elected politicians, 130 people turned up tonight (with no refreshments) versus 50 last Tuesday (with the promise of tea/coffee). Perhaps the only disappointment was that there weren’t more students in the audience. But the organisers’ two aims were certainly met.
East Belfast Spoke Out ... quietly and without incident. But they spoke. And perhaps it'll spread.