Thursday, February 2, 2012

East Belfast speaks out again

To Ashfield Boys School this evening for the third East Belfast Speaks Out, the second that I have attended. The panel this time was:

·         Michael Copeland MLA (UUP)
·         Sammy Douglas MLA (DUP)
·         John Kyle (PUP) Belfast City Councillor
·         Chris Lyttle MLA (Alliance Party)
·         John O’Dowd MLA (SF) Minister for  

The event was described by the organisers as ‘a "Town Hall" style meeting between the people of East Belfast and their elected representatives’ – covering the parties at Assembly and council level and thus including the PUP. There was some protest about the selection by an SDLP member on social networking sites prior to the event, but the individual did not pursue the matter in the meeting, perhaps having understood that if the SDLP ever mange to get elected to anything in East Belfast then they’ll be included.

My only issue was the lack of women on the panel – there are female councillors and MLAs in East Belfast (and an MP), so where were they tonight?

Anyway, the evening was a cracker.  Mark Davenport chaired again, very well considering the pace of the meeting and the number of people who wanted to speak. It must have been exhausting. Feedback from last year had obviously been heeded. This year there was no warm-up act – that wasn’t why we’d bothered to turn up to a cold school hall on an even colder night. And the priority was to ensure that as many people as possible were heard – 24 questions in all. The theme was ‘How responsive is the Assembly to the real concerns of the electorate’? but, not surprisingly, it was only loosely followed. Give the number of questions, it wasn’t possible for all panel members to respond to every question. Last year the panel spoke too much. This year, I’d have liked to have heard more from some of them, particularly Chris Lyttle who seemed to me to be the quietest – and no bias, I did vote for him. I was most impressed with Sammy Douglas, but sadly I’d never vote for the DUP so that has done him no good.

The 24 questions varied from the deeply personal to the more abstract, with a focus on education perhaps due to the presence of John O’Dowd, perhaps because it’s important to people. The audience included lots of young people and women, both well represented amongst the questioners.

I was particularly interested in the replies to a question on the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill, which raised the question of whether parity with Britain would be challenged and if so how. John O’Dowd was most emphatic that the Bill had not yet been passed and stated ‘let’s break parity on this issue’ – but he didn’t seem to understand that there would be a financial penalty for departing from a unified benefits system. The only realistic approach is to try to plug the gaps with other budgets, which means directing more of the block grant towards the least well off. I was also interested in the almost total support for the regeneration of the Maze/ Long Kesh including the Conflict Resolution Centre, justified (correctly in my view) by the combined potential for jobs, tourism and a positive act of remembrance.

The panel were, of course, asked if they supported integrated education. As usual, the answer was either yes or a qualified yes. It really makes you wonder why there are so few integrated schools...  

Other subjects covered included:

  • Educational underachievement by young men
  • Helping young people not in education, employment or training
  • Is it time for politics based on economic and social issues rather than on the border
  • The continuing mess that is the transfer test
  • Supergrass trials
  • How to support the unemployed and help them back into work
  • Should there be a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland?
  • Funding for education including special educational needs
  • Need for social housing
  • Noise from Belfast City Airport
  • Corporation tax
  • Likelihood of Peace IV funding from the EU
  • Services for people with mental health problems
  • Cuts to the health service
The only serious disruption came from a man who ranted on about politicians being corrupt and useless, wouldn’t shut up and then left. I assumed he was an unhappy and perhaps disturbed individual whose life had gone very wrong, and was shocked to find out later that he was from the Occupy movement. I would have been sympathetic to them before, but no longer.

The panel wasn’t as high profile as last year, but were clearly more aware of local issues and in several cases obviously in touch with their individual constituents. When asking is the Assembly doing its job, the jury is still out, but there’s no question that some local representatives at Stormont and in Belfast City Council are working very hard to help their constituents as best they can.

P.S. Congratulations again to Alan in Belfast for comprehensive tweeting at #ebso


P M said...

politicians being corrupt and useless, wouldn’t shut up and then left. I assumed he was an unhappy and perhaps disturbed individual whose life had gone very wrong

Sounds like the highlight of the event. Do you not think he had a right to say what he said? Albeit he should not have ranted and went on and on about it.

Based on the panel, there certainly are a number who are corrupt or associated with corrupt people, even Alliance took on the justice post and went into government despite pleading with the electorate that it was the party that does constructive opposition.

Jenny Muir said...

PM - he had the right to speak on the same basis as every else - by asking a question (including making a short point as part of the question), and then listening to the answers. It might have helped if he'd had a point to make about service delivery, which was the main preoccupation of just about everyone else.

Instead, he shouted, incoherently for most of the time, wouldn't be quiet and wouldn't listen to the responses of the panel. Typical male dominating behaviour, for one thing, and completely disrespectful not only to the panel but also to the audience, who makde it clear they wanted him to shut up.

So no, it was the LOW point of the evening and if the Occupy movement want to put a message across to the wider public then they need to think much more carefully about how they do it.

P M said...

I hope you told him all that and put him straight.

Jenny Muir said...

He wasn't exactly hanging around to have a conversation with anyone. He just wanted to tell us what he thought, and have us agree with him. He stormed off because some of the panel disagreed with him - what did he expect??

P M said...

I know Sammy Douglas should have jumped up and said "I take it you've heard about Peter Robinson's £5 land deal then".


Jenny Muir said...

I think Sammy is in the wrong party. But it's up to him.

Rab said...

I have to confess, like the guy from the Occupy movement, I just want to shout at politicians in public. I don't, of course. I reserve that sort of behaviour for Twitter.

Do you reckon Sammy Douglas could be turned (as I think they used to say during the cold war)? I wonder how many people in Northern Ireland join parties, not for ideological reasons, but simply because it'll get them elected. Whereas if they joined parties based upon their principles they'd never hold office.

Jenny Muir said...

Rab - I am in favour of the carefully worded and barbed question, but I confess it doesn't always work and certainly didn't at EBSO where it was mostly ignored (guess which subject was mine!)

I couldn't possibly comment about Sammy.... But I do have some sympathy for political activists who think they can do more if elected and make compromises accordingly. Less sympathy for careerists who go with the flow. I'm sure it happens in all political systems, not just ours. But if Labour were to allow us to stand for elections, there might be a certain amount of trying to encourage some people to move over. I hestitate to use the word 'target'.

Anyone but the LibDems said...

I found your comment "Typical male dominating behaviour" to be sexist. What is typical, who decides, and are all or many men the same?

Jenny Muir said...

Anyone but - (a sentiment I agree with) - let's just say 55 years of experience...... Seriously though, typical doesn't mean all men are like that. It means behaviour is of their type i.e. most do. Perhaps the strongest case you have is that none of the other men in the room DID behave like that, which I accept.

However, in general, in my experience (especially in politics) most men don't listen, they don't take women seriously, they always think they are right, they talk too much, they hog any space that's going in any situation you care to name (including physically with that thing they do when they sit down they their legs apart), they are aggressive, they make 'jokes' about women and just about any other group they think they can get away with, and oh did I mention that they don't take women seriously (especually if we are not aged between 16 - 30 and a size 10)?

But OF COURSE not all men are like that. I'm married to one who isn't. But there is a tendency in that direction.

P M said...

Was there a need to bring gender into it? Young males can be aggressive and rude, but you highlighting that doesn't add anything at all. In the same way that guy didn't really add much other than relate something, which i imagine, leaving his style to one side, a sizeable portion of the electorate would prob agree with.

Jenny Muir said...

PM - Young women can also be agressive and rude, but tend not to be to the same extent. Therefore I conclude that gender had something to do with it. In terms of the subject matter, asking the panel about the degree to which they are corrput might not have been the best use of everyone's time. Had the questioner raised issues being highlighted globally by the Occupy movement such as the adequacy of the financial system and hence of capitalism, and asked the panel to comment, it might have been more interesting. Answers would have exposed the inadequacy of some or even all of their ideologies.

P M said...
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P M said...
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Jenny Muir said...

PM - sorry you deleted the previous too comments as they were not unreasonable at all. Feel free to put back a version as there is only one issue I'd like to respond to but won't do so without the original point being in the public domain