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23 April 2015

What we’ve learnt so far from the Northern Ireland hustings

What we’ve learnt so far from the Northern Ireland hustings

East Belfast hustings candidates, 13 April 2015

The Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland together with CARE have organised six hustings events across six constituencies. Although there have been a few hustings in previous years organised by individual churches, this is the first significant series of hustings to be held here by the Christian community. Our hope is to help create a culture of church hustings and local political engagement in the years ahead.

We are almost half way through our hustings events and there is much to report….

The first event in the constituency of East Belfast was lively to say the least. It began with protestors and a police Land Rover outside while two candidates had to enter and exit the building discreetly with the assistance of the PSNI. The East Belfast seat is hotly contested and personal and political tensions were quite tangible at times in the room.

In terms of numbers, around three hundred people, including some of the protestors, submitted over one hundred and twenty questions to the five candidates on the night. A specific issue for this constituency, and the reason for the protests and security presence, was that of flying the union flag at City Hall. This relates back to a council decision back in 2012 to desist from flying the union flag every day and move instead to flying it on around seventeen designated days. A lot of Unionist/Loyalist anger at this decision was directed at the Alliance Party and specifically Naomi Long, the then sitting, now incumbent, MP for the area. Specific questions were raised about the funding and distribution of 40,000 leaflets in the run up to this council vote by Unionist parties in East Belfast. The flying of the union flag and protection of a British identity are specific manifesto pledges for the DUP who are keen to win the seat which, until 2010, had veen held by the party's leader since 1979.

Other issues which formed the basis for many questions from the room, and which divided the candidates, were same-sex marriage and abortion. These issues have featured strongly in the hustings events and are quite particular now to Northern Ireland given legislative differences in the rest of the UK in these areas. A lot of time was spent on welfare reform and the economy, with other questions on the environment and reconciliation.

The second event was in Lagan Valley where nine candidates are contending the seat which has been held by Jeffrey Donaldson from the DUP since 1997. Again the event began with a protest; well it wouldn't truly be Northern Ireland politics without one. This time the protest was from a party who did not meet the criteria which was set out by us, under Electoral Commission guidelines, to limit the debate to five candidates. It was entirely peaceful and amounted to the distribution of letters as the public entered the carpark.

Again the event was a great success and the range of issues covered was huge. Many of the same issues came up again, with a lot of focus on the vulnerable and welfare reform. Specifics for this constituency included the future of the Maze/Long Kesh site and the development of a John Lewis superstore at Sprucefield. There were plenty of laughs in the room alongside some very serious and sensitive questions on the beginning and end of life and nuclear weapons. The environment, health care, religious freedom and foreign aid were also raised by the audience. In terms of numbers, almost one hundred people submitted over fifty questions to be asked to four candidates.

At this stage here are three things we have learnt:

  1. Politics is messy and hustings are tricky – As the BBC found out, along with anyone who has ever tried to host a hustings or political debate, it is difficult to please everyone. Trying to balance fairness, numbers of candidates and quality of discussion is a fine art. We are happy with the criteria we have used for non-selective hustings based on Electoral Commission discretion. However we will learn lessons for the future about handling relationships and communications with everyone involved or not involved in the process. Despite the messiness of politics and hosting public events, the hustings have been a great success so far.

  2. Politics in Northern Ireland is 'normalising' – The fact is that just two elections ago it would have been almost impossible for Sinn Fein and the DUP to share a stage. The Northern Ireland Executive still operates by way of a mandatory coalition but there are now plans, as agreed in the Stormont House Agreement, to reduce the number of MLAs and to create a form of opposition. The issues in the room were very wide-ranging and not confined to 'orange/green' or 'moral' issues. These things, together with the fact that hustings can occur at all, are reflective of small but important steps towards a more normalised system of politics in Northern Ireland.

  3. People are passionate – The audience and the candidates were passionate about politics and the areas they live in. This is obvious but really important to remember when the narrative that we often hear is that people don't vote and politicians don't care. This has not been the experience of our hustings so far and we don't expect this to change in the next few weeks.