Wednesday, November 10, 2010

East Belfast Speaks Out – loud and clear

To Ashfield Boys’ School this evening, for a packed to capacity and very lively ‘East Belfast Speaks Out’. The panel was chaired by the BBC’s Mark Devenport and included Liam Clarke, Martin McGuinness, Dawn Purvis, Peter Robinson and Hugo Swire – the last being a junior NI Minister, by the way. I think all the others require no introduction.

It was terrific that the organisers managed to put together such a high-powered group and equally terrific that the audience had so much to say. My main fear was that the event would be dominated by men droning on, but there were many contributions from women and an impressive lack of grandstanding all round.

The theme of the evening was ‘moving forward’ and the most comprehensive commentary is from Alan in Belfast on Twitter at #ebso (and subsequently on Slugger). Although Dan Gordon was funny, I would have preferred to do without the warm-up (clearly not needed) and a prepared question to start us off. The event was billed as 7.30 – 9.00 but ended at 20 to 10, and another 20 minutes or so on responses from the panel to audience questions would have been time better spent.

Even so, a wide range of topics were covered including:

• Governance
• The Historical Enquiries Team and failure so far to find an effective way to deal with the past
• The Cohesion, Sharing and Integration policy
• Abolition of community designation in the Assembly
• Does NI fail its young people
• The impact of the Comprehensive Spending Review
• Corporation Tax
• University fees
• The next twenty years.

The debate had its feet firmly on the ground throughout. A question about the Historical Enquiries Team promoted several passionate contributions from women working with young people about ongoing intimidation from paramilitary groups – or ‘Residual Terrorist Groups’, which is apparently the new jargon. The inability to agree on reconciliation led naturally into CSI, which gave the First and Deputy First Ministers a chance to admit that the process had been challenging and to pat themselves on the back for getting so far, while everyone else was saying it wasn’t by any means far enough. Dawn Purvis was excellent here. By now it was clear that this event wasn’t an abstract debate about constitutional niceties but a deeply felt discussion about people’s lives.

Just as I was wondering why no-one had mentioned the cuts, along came the questions about the future of youth services, university fees, Corporation Tax, water rates and so on. I have to say Peter Robinson was very good, especially as part of exchanges over Corporation Tax reduction, when he and the DFM ganged up on the Junior Minister and batted for Northern Ireland together. McGuinness weighed in about cuts to the capital budget, which Swire blamed on Labour, the global recession obviously having passed him by. Robinson and Purvis both came back strongly on university fees, Robinson saying the Assembly doesn’t have to do the same as England and Purvis quite rightly railing against elitism. In a general comment on cuts, Robinson said the Assembly would try to protect the most vulnerable – it may of course not end up like that in practice, not least due to the welfare cuts imposed by Westminster.

The panel membership didn’t entirely work; inevitably it was dominated by the MLAs and Mark Devenport had the unenviable job of trying to balance the many audience questions and comments with allowing time for responses from the panel. However, it was still quite an evening. One question was about how more people could be encouraged to take an interest in politics. With more events like this, it wouldn’t be a problem.


Anonymous said...

Strange that the new MP for Belfast East was not on the panel!

Alan in Belfast said...

Naomi Long was on the panel last year. There were no repeat invites this year.

Stephen Blacker said...

Just after listening to the recording on Alan in Belfast site and I was impressed by the whole event. It was quite civilized and it came across that the panel are starting to deal with "real" politics. The people from the audience with most being women, spoke with passion and determination, it was super to see a full house and maybe the people are going to get more involved in everyday politics.

Events like this should take place more often especially with the percieved top politicans. This panel could not have been much bigger with OFMDFM there and also one of if not the best and most clued in MLA in Dawn Purvis.

The first comment this thread had from "Anonymous" was answered by Alan in Belfast on a post on Slugger O'Toole, N. Long was not on the panel because she was on it last year.

Jenny Muir said...

Alan - thank you so much for your work to document this event. I've just watched the Hearts and Minds item on it and thought it was a shame that it didn't point out that it was a synthesis of old and new - a face to face event recorded by Twitter and then the commentary and recording being available online.

Stephen - agree we should have more events like this and the turnout shows there is demand. Important to have them outside Belfast, too.

Arthur Acheson said...

Hi Jenny - good stuff. I attended both last year's and this year's events. Contrary to your thoughts, I thought the "warm up" person each year should have been invited to stay on and join the panel - this would have allowed a lighter touch and some better banter. Everything was a little sober and needed some cheek to keep it going. Had I been given a chance at the end I would have asked the OFM/DFM Ministers if they could just say two words each - Could Peter Robinson please say "the North" and Martin McGuinness "Northern Ireland"? (Just once to prove it can be done.....)

Jenny Muir said...

Hi Arthur - thanks! We'll have to agree to differ on the warm-up, but I hadn't thought about Dan G as a panel member - might have been interesting.

Also re North/ Northern Ireland: I suspect both are constitutionally (no pun intended) unable to say those words....I see a Folks on the Hill sketch.... perhaps written by Dan Gordon....