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:
• 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.