So last night East Belfast spoke out…quietly.
I expected more. Indeed I feared more.
I thought there would be folks from the totemic Belmont Bowling Club and maybe the Beast from the East…or at least some Fleggers. Maybe some Short Strand residents, letsgetalongerists.
In the event, not even a row of folks from the UUP, SDLP or Alliance to make sure their man on the Panel got a fair round of applause.
“Names” in the Ashfield Boys School audience include Basil McCrea MLA, Chris Lyttle MLA, Peter Osborne from the Parades Commission, Bill Wright from Lucid Talk, Trevor Ringland from the Conservatives, Jenny Muir and Ross Brown from the Green Party.
Jim Wilson …who is a (whats the word?) “Community Worker” in East Belfast was also up-front. Also one or two people who appeared to be from the local Kneebreakers.
No Jamie Bryson…the Flegger, football mascot, civil rights advocate and volunteer taxi dispatcher.
And a few other faces, who show up at this kinda thing. Indeed the Organiser of the event, James Smith greeted me with the words “you were at Platform for Change on Monday night”.
Even more worryingly Alan from Slugger O’Toole informs me that I am now “one of them”.
Have I been sucked in?
Am I a Blogalongerist? (As Alan puts it).
As I walked up the drive to the School, it was evident from PSNI and plain clothes spook activity (they are not kidding anyone) that the promised Tory on the panel would be a big name…and no surprise that it turned out to be the Secretary of State for Norn Iron…Theresa Villiers.
The other members of the Panel.
Stephen Farry MLA…Alliance, North Down. Minister for Employment and Learning.
Alex Attwood MLA…SDLP representative at the Haass Talks and European candidate for next year.
Mike Nesbitt MLA….UUP Leader.
Dr Deirdre Hannon. …University of Ulster and a familiar face on TV as an observer on Northern politics.
Audience numbers: I would guess around one hundred. Disappointing.
Mark Devenport from the BBC chaired the meeting which was part subsidised by our good friends at Stratagem.
Opposition. Deirdre Heenan seemed in favour. Stephen Farry made the point that he saw it as a raft of possible reforms. For example, an end to the Designation System.
Farry said that when DUP-SF agree on something, they “bulldoze” past the other Executive Parties but when they disagree , things stagnate.
He was not pursued on this…an end to designation undermines power-sharing and as the unworthy third Party in the Executive…the gerrymander depends on the Alliance Party, they are best placed to do something and dont do anything.
Alex Attwood said there is no real debate about Opposition within SDLP. A surprising thing to say but he is technically correct. Alex said that DUP-SF were in Government but not “in power” and as usual reference SNP as the best government in these Islands.
For Nesbitt…there were other reforms, fewer Departments, fewer MLAs bu Government-Opposition is the next big step to normalisation.
Villiers resorted to platitudes. The British Government wants normalisation but power-sharing is essential.
From the Floor, Trevor Ringland wondered if there was any evidence of the smaller parties working together.
From the Floor, it was stated that there was no point in having a Government when the Parades Commission…a Quango…was really running the show.
Surprisingly, Jim Wilson… a “community worker” said that it was loyalists in Long Kesh in 1974, who initiated the Peace Process we know today.
Alex criticised the Secretary of State for not re-appointing the Parades Commission but Villiers said that the commission had come to the end of its term and there would be no re-appointments.
The implication is that the Brits are not happy.
Moving on to other points. There was reference to the Scottish referendum maybe leading to broader “UK” reform.
Jim Wilson….he’s still a “community worker” …said Alliance bear responsibility for the Flegs and asked Stephen Farry if they would make the same decision again.
Farry said that they would. He wants a proper protocol on Flegs ..Province-wide….and obviously this gets Alliance off the hook but the momentum towards designated days in Derry and Newry. The momentum building around this is worrying for nationalists.
Would a Civic Forum be more democratic? Alex was in favour of it being re-activated but with changes as time has moved on from 1998.
This seems to be something SDLP have adopted recently but frankly I see difficulties…hand-picked clergymen and women, hand-picked academics….jobs for the boys and girls in Platform for Change and maybe even Stratagem.
John Larkin and his recent comments led to some fairly heated discussion. For Deirdre, Larkin had been demonised? Not every Victim can have Justice. Nesbitt broadly agreed…that he had done an “Eames-Bradley” (ie talking sense but the concentration was all on one unfortunate remark).
Attwood was more passionate. Nobody had the right to take away Investigations, Inquiries and Inquests…all this was in the ownership of the families.
Attwood was talking like a politician…quite rightly. But it could be claimed he was talking to the Gallery. Deirdre Heenan was talking like an academic.
Being passionate has its place.
Being dispassionate has its place.
I dont think either came across well when the line was blurred.
I would have liked to have heard more on “Information before Immunity” which came from the Floor.
On Saturdays threatened Flegs Protests, Farry appealed for Common Sense, Nesbitt urged the Protestors to forsake their right and Villiers understood the strength of feeling.
Attwood called for the organisers…PUP, UVF (yes) and loyal orders to re-think. He was certain that if one organisation called off the protests, the rest would follow.
Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer got a mention…someone from the Floor asked what part Teresa Villiers had in their “internment” (sic). And it was a disgrace that laws enacted because of the threat of Muslim (sic) terrorism were being used against Frazer and Bryson.
Predictably Villiers said she had no part in this.
Welfare Reform…Theresa was defending the indefensible. Farry less forthright that Attwood and even Nesbitt who name-checked his party colleague Michael Copeland for the work he has done advocating for his constituents.
Social rather than political issues….Male Suicide, Rights of Fathers, Mental Health, Fuel Poverty, Abortion…and a surprising amount of consensus. Farry perhaps not as “compassionate” as Deirdre, Alex and Nesbitt.
Mike Nesbitt was maybe the surprise package of the night. Dismissed as a lightweight and “TV Mike”….he actually came across as a pretty decent guy with all the right instincts.
But then again….thats what most people here are. Decent.
Oh and a special word for Boyd Black, who tediously condemned the British Labour Party for encouraging sectarianism….its getting to a habit.
And a word of appreciation to Chris Lyttle Alliance MLA with whom I had a few friendly words afterwards.
I think you are starting to see the merits in Chris.
Most people are decent. I dont doubt that he is.
I first encountered him…and he recalled it on Wednesday night….at a Hustings before Election in 2011.
I asked him that night, would SDLP in EastB elfast be mad to give him a #2 preference if Alliance ended up with an extra seat on Executive.
He stumbled over the answer.
And I think events have proved me right.
SDLP and UUP are victims of a Gerrymander.
Alliance have three answers to this
One is that one Executive seat is thru dHondt and the second the will of the Assembly….( or put it another way DUP-SF).
The second answer is the bullish response that Alliance have long been squeezed out by bigger parties and they will unapologetically take every advantage going.
The third response is a sheepish acceptance that this is not in the best interests of Democracy.
TheA lliance Party could go a long way to rehabilitate itself if it was straightforward and said this is an abuse.
Now youre an Alliance supporter and as you know I dont encourage views from an undemocratic party. So Please note my tolerance here. 😉
I’m not going to get into a nuanced and nonsensical debate about Alliance on this.
I think the Alliance stance is disgusting.