- Steven Agnew MLA (Leader, NI Green Party)
- Eamonn Deane (Holywell Trust)
- Dolores Kelly MLA (SDLP Deputy Leader)
- Anna Lo MLA (Alliance)
- John McCallister MLA (UUP)
- Tony McMullan (Co-operative Party)
- Trevor Ringland (billed as ‘former rugby international’ rather than ‘former UCUNF candidate’)
- Kellie Turtle (Belfast Feminist Network)
The debate took the format of a short address from each panel member, followed by questions from the floor. Presumably the title was intended to get both panel members and audience thinking about how politics here could focus more on the famous ‘bread and butter issues’, described by several panel members as ‘normal’ politics. And of course, as day follows night, it meant that most of the evening was spent talking about identity.
Several questions, including my own, were about whether the communal parties were capable of moving on from a focus on territory. On the evidence of this event, the answer is no. Both John McCallister and Dolores Kelly seemed to think that any comments about the continuing legitimacy of their parties was an attack on their personal right to be unionist or nationalist. They just didn’t seem to get that, whatever other policies of theirs you might support, you can’t join them if you don’t share their national position. As Stephen Agnew rightly said, if you want a politics of ideas, vote for parties which are based on ideas and not identity. Agnew came across as the most impressive panel member, being the only one to talk about poverty, and managing to take issue with the positions of other parties in a forensic but still courteous manner.
But did McCallister and Kelly have a point? Perhaps ‘normalisation’ of politics is thought by some to mean that territorial identity is ignored or sidestepped. The challenge for the next generation of party politics in Northern Ireland is to get unionists, nationalists and others to work together to counter the immense attacks on welfare and public services that are coming from Westminster, and to minimise the damage as best they can. This is already happening in the Alliance, Green, Labour and Workers’ Parties (neither Labour nor the Workers’ Party were invited to participate, although it was good to see the Co-operative Party represented). It involves finding a way to acknowledge and accept different national identities – and other aspects of identity – within party politics. It’s why I have written about how political parties may have to stand back from campaigning if we ever have a border poll.
And it's why I found a particular aspect of Dolores Kelly’s response to my question to be breathtakingly egregious. I wasn’t allowed to respond at the event and so am glad to be able to put the record straight here. Ms Kelly stated that Labour is a unionist party. Although I have the greatest respect for some individuals within the SDLP, comments like that try my patience. I can do no better than to quote from Labour in NI’s submission to last year’s Refounding Labour consultation process, as a result of which talks are currently talking place about the possibility of us standing for elections here:
Labour members in Northern Ireland want to see the development of anti-sectarian politics that can challenge nationalist and unionist polarities for the betterment of the whole of our society..... Some Labour members are unionists and some are nationalists, some have no strong views either way and others feel strongly that their identity and heritage is both British and Irish. The Labour Party’s policy UK-wide is to support the constitutional mechanism put in place for deciding this issue in the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act and we do not differ from this.... Labour would designate as ‘Other’ in the Assembly and strengthen the growing third strand of political activity in the region.
But Ms Kelly’s attempts to score points against every other political party on the panel left the audience increasingly frustrated and by the end of the evening groans and heckling accompanied most of her comments, so perhaps no potential Labour recruits were put off after all. John McCallister also demonstrated how close his party still is to the Tories by blaming Labour for the economic crisis and backing most of the budget (more heckling), except of course the granny tax as that might actually lose him some votes.
I’ve always had very mixed feelings about Platform for Change. I support what they want to do, however I think they have been wrong to work with the UUP and SDLP on the basis that these parties can be part of the solution. This debate proved my point.
However the main challenge for the next generation of political activists isn’t going to be about developing new ideas. It’s going to be about communicating these ideas to the electorate and getting the votes in.