Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Assembly Roadshow in East Belfast: homogeneity, cleavages and a panel of one!

It was like a giant metaphor for Northern Ireland politics: nothing quite runs the way you’d expect.

After eight hitch-free Assembly roadshows before the summer recess, what could go wrong with the first of the next batch, conveniently only a mile down the road from Parliament Buildings in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast?

The enabling Justice Bill is what went wrong. The MLAs had been debating it since before lunchtime, and as the roadshow kicked off at 8pm, the only MLA panellist who’d arrived was the PUP’s Dawn Purvis. The rest were holed up in the Assembly, with party whips being blamed for not allowing anyone to leave until the expected division (vote).

The NI Assembly’s Director General Trevor Reaney opening the East Belfast roadshow in the absence of Speaker William Hay

Nevertheless, with a crowd of fifty or more people assembled – from Belfast, Lisburn, Ballymena and beyond - the Assembly’s Director General Trevor Reaney opened the evening’s entertainment proceedings, deputising for the Speaker Willie Hay who was still refereeing the debate further up the road. They showed a quick video which walked through various aspects of the Assembly, the Executive, the role of committees and how the public can interact with and visit the Assembly.

Then it was over to Eamonn Mallie and his panel of one.

“It’s a bit like a pub with no beer” he quipped.

The first clutch of questions came from Friends’ School politics pupils, asking whether MLAs’ salaries should be cut given the economic circumstances, and whether the number of MLAs should dropped.

Dawn Purvis (PUP) - the lone MLA to turn up for the panel at the NI Assembly roadshow in East Belfast

Dawn got a chance to answer and the fifty or so members of the public got every opportunity to chip in too ... as long as they could first satisfy Eamonn Mallie’s questions about their names, predicted A-level grades, and relationship status.

The fact that Northern Ireland is less homogeneous than Scotland seemed to be the killer reason not to shrink from 108 MLAs at this stage, together with the likely outcome of marginalising smaller voices (women, ethnic minorities and smaller parties). It was also noted (several times) that “Northern Ireland has cleavages”, referring to our divided past rather than anything more salacious.

members of the public who had turned up at the NI Assembly roadshow in East Belfast

The roadshow quickly journeyed through double jobbing, golden handshakes for councillors who depart in the local government shake-up in 2011, difficulties with councillor co-option, the lack of a joined up East Belfast regeneration plan, Belfast City Airport’s plans to extend their runway, and whether the panel had sympathy with the residents of Short Strand during Orange parades.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, the very affable water rates protesters gave up waiting for the other MLAs to arrive, and picked up their placards from the door on the way out!

Dawn Purvis clearly articulated her views, and the policies of her party, on most of the topics. Perhaps the only unsatisfactory one was around the feeling of Short Strand traders and residents that their freedom of movement (I think referring mostly to getting cars in and out of the area) was restricted during Orange parades - though there was some feeling it was a policing matter if more roads than strictly necessary were being blocked.

About then, Willie Hay arrived, apologised for the unexpected circumstances that had led to the panel being understaffed, and committed to rearranging the East Belfast roadshow before too long.

In the circumstances, a small victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rematch is tomorrow night at 7.30pm (8pm start) in the Chinese Welfare Centre, Ormeau Road, Belfast … as long as the Justice Bill isn’t still being debated.