A crowded hall/church at the Methodist Agape Centre, Lisburn Road, Belfast last night. South Belfast hustings. Organised by two students (one still not eligible to vote) thru Challenges NI.
A crowded hall/church but not a crowded platform. DUP, UUP, TUV and People Before Profit were “no-shows”. A report on the 2016 event is in the archives of this Blog. Last year Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was the only “no-show”.
Last year I said that I liked the Panel much better than I liked the Audience, which was too “right on” in the manner of young MetroTextuals in South Belfast. Too anti-politician for my taste. Whatever the shortcomings of politicians of ANY Party, they have the courage to show their heads above the parapet.
Last year, I singled Christopher Stalford (DUP) for some praise as he (and Claire Hanna) had defended Fearghal McKinney from a charge of sectarianism levelled by a strange member of the audience. That was decent.
Last night William Crawley joked that last year his life had been saved by a member of the Alliance Party (it was Duncan Morrow) but he might have mentioned the potential assassin was a lifelong Alliance voter.
Last year, there were two sessions. There was an undercard for the also-rans. ..a warm-up for the main players. Last night with seven participants, the minor Party candidates, Lily Kerr (Workers), Sean Burns (Cross Community Labour) and Stephen Jaubert (Conservative) got to share the stage with Claire Bailey (Green), Claire Hanna (SDLP), Emmet McDonough-Brown (Alliance) and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (Sinn Féin).
The good thing about arriving early is that you can spot little groups forming. And when the candidates arrive, they seek out these groups. Thus Greens were seated to my left, just behind the Workers Party folks. Alliance a few seats in front of me….and I daresay each Party had a little cluster of their own. I would assume William Crawley was trying to select questioners from each group as well as questions from “civilians”.
Crawley asked the participants to introduce themselves in non-political terms.
Lily Kerr is a grandmother, veteran UNISON official and a shop steward since she was 15 years old. Sean Burns is a 20 year old and starting off on the socialist journey. Stephen Jaubert is a Tory…a Syrian migrant granted access to “UK ” for his key skills. Complete with blue rosette, he appeared like a Conservative Party member sent along by Central Casting.
Young Emmett and Claire Bailey are actually quite similar. “Westies”, Claire is from Clonard and told the familiar tale of being in the first intake of twenty-eight students into Lagan College in 1981. And Emmett has made the same journey from West to South.
There is I think more to it than a physical move. One of the veteran Alliance contributors on Slugger O’Toole used to go on about the same “journey”.
Of course there are two different types of ex-Westies. One that quickly kicks off the dust of Beechmount and Turf Lodge and reinvents themselves in Carryduff. The other ex-Westie leaves Grosvenor Road and Ballymurphy and claims that he/she is still the same old boy/girl from the ‘hood. A bit like Jimmy Tarbuck slabbering on about Liverpool.
Máirtín ÓMuilleoir is another Westie….and still lives there. Claire Hanna had the best line. She is having a baby at the end of March….just a few weeks after the Election. “This election will not be about Delivery”
The first question of the night was on RHI. EVeryone was suitably outraged at the DUP and Sinn Féin and Ó Muilleoir who was suitably indignant that Sinn Féin are also in the dock. He tried his own Timeline of events but the audience were having none of that. They were after all a government.
He was certainly punching back or lashing out from being on the ropes. And was saved by the bell, in what seemed a very short round.
The question on Bus Lanes and traffic congestion in South Belfast was obviously local. SInn Féin Minister Chris Hazzard was widely praised by SDLP, Greens, Alliance for his general attitude but all opposed his recent decisions were queried. Ó Muilleoir tried to justify it as an “experiment”, a bad choice of words as an audience member wondered allowed how the success could be measured …dead bodies and broken limbs?
There was pretty widespread condemnation of unionist failure to attend as Equal Marriage and “Reproductive Rights” were discussed. The parties on the platform were mostly on the same page.
The politicians from minor parties had been given a comparatively easy ride. Lily Kerr was appearing as your favourite, outspoken auntie. Sean Burns was your favourite nephew, with his mates at the back of the hall….all with matching fluffy facial hair.
Stephen the Tory had been given an easy ride largely because so few people had actually seen a Tory in real life. But ironically he lost the room with his defence of Tory refugee and migrant policies. South Belfast…or at least those in the room are overwhelmingly pro-migrant and extremely humane. It was very reassuring.
My vrecollection is that this is the point that Máirtín had to leave for another appointment on Ravenhill Road. So he missed the Brexit Question.
Lily, Sean and Stephen had all voted to “LEAVE” and this was the point that the audience turned against the minor parties. I dont suppose that this audience was representative but it was very Europhile. All the major candidates were “REMAINERS” and all presented visions of the horrors to come….and a tacit acceptance here that Claire Hanna was the most authorative.
Lily Kerr talked about a “rich mans club” and tried to argue that she had not voted for BREXIT …she had voted for her own “LEXIT” (a Left Exit). It was a silly point and she lost the favourite aunt tag. Sean was no longer patronised …he was just dismissed as naive. And Stephen was a Tory…and nobody really had any sympathy for the view that we should trust Theresa May.
I am not sure how Sinn Féins lukewarm non campaign and subsequent posing could have been explained away by Máirtín.
And that was it.
What did we learn? DUP did not show up. Nor did TUV. Not their type of audience. But UUP not showing up was a surprise. I know as little about Michael Henderson now as I did last week. He should have taken advantage of the platform. Likewise Paidraigin Mervyn of People Before Profit.
Well you’d expect me to say that Claire Hanna performed best and she probably did. It was easy for her in the sense that she was the most experienced “Opposition” politician and basically it was straightforward to target Ó Muilleoir as the Finance Minister who didnt know what was going on. Claire Bailey was ok…played to her strengths (Feminism) . I liked Emmet, who was very direct, not a waffler and obviously to the left of his running mate in this election.
Ó Muilleoir….well which Máirtín was it? The one I saw last year at an Easter 1916 Commemoration, calling for “bualaidh bós” for the next MLA for Strangford (Dermot Kennedy). …or “NewBelfast” reading poetry as he cycles along the Lagan Towpath. Either way, he seemed downright offended that anyone would even question his performance over the last ten months.