by Gaibhin McGranaghan, News Reporter
A hustings event between the eight Assembly parties was facilitated by BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback program at the Crescent Arts Centre in South Belfast on Wednesday. Moderator William Crawley hosted the discussion live in front of an audience assembled from the general public, whereby panellist were posited questions.
The prospect of direct rule immediately spotlighted itself within the hustings, as Belfast businesswoman and former NI21 chair Tina McKenzie, voicing her concerns over the consequences of the Assembly’s collapse on Northern Ireland’s business sector, bluntly asked the panellists if they could not form a cohesive Executive in the next six months, should local entrepreneurs assume that decisions would be made at Westminster.
Responses from almost each of the assembled parties insisted steadfast support for devolution. The DUP’s Edwin Poots asserted his party as “the party of devolution” and as “the stabilising factor within that Executive,” citing the likes of the Crescent Arts Centre, the Lyric Theatre and MAC as successes of devolved government. Yet in the next breath, the former arts and culture minister took an implicit swipe at his former Executive partners in Sinn Féin, referring to the ongoing rows over welfare reform and the loss of £214million to Westminster.
Sinn Féin’s candidate for West Belfast Alex Maskey emphasised the institutions’ centrality to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, yet “the institutions will only be up and running if they’re operated on the basis of respect, equality and integrity in government.” When probed by BBC Talkback host William Crawley on whether Sinn Féin could work with Arlene Foster, Mr Maskey stated that “we respect everybody’s mandate but we only will work with those on the basis of delivering good government based on equality and integrity.”
Roy Beggs Jr of the Ulster Unionist Party had a much brusquer response, arguing that the risk of direct rule’s imposition was larger unless people deviated from their usual voting habits on 2nd March, going on to accuse the DUP and Sinn Féin of playing a great game with the electorate. His comments were echoed by the SDLP’s Colin McGrath who ventured further that “Stormont has its flaws and can be fixed, but you won’t get that by electing people who won’t sit down and talk to each other.” Both parties have been working in concert with one another as Stormont’s unofficial opposition since the last Assembly’s opening last May. Their respective leaders have each made history in their own ways, with Colum Eastwood’s address to the UUP conference last year as the first Irish nationalist leader ever to do so; to Mike Nesbitt’s controversial claims earlier this month that he would be transferring to SDLP candidate Séamas de Faoite after his own party’s when voting in his home constituency of East Belfast.
The Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry expressed a clear preference for devolution in highlighting what he termed “the reals dangers of direct rule,” namely in terms of local accountability, as a forum for reconciliation and for NI’s economy. “If we go under direct rule,” he said, “we lose control of the levers that can make a difference for our particular circumstances, especially as we’re about to experience Brexit.” Green Party leader Steven Agnew continued on a similar view, and reiterated his party’s calls for a constitutional convention in order to “review, reform and revitalise the institutions and principles of the Good Friday Agreement.”
People Before Profit’s North Belfast candidate Fiona Ferguson offered a more sombre prediction for her part, foreseeing little change in the overall makeup of the Assembly with the DUP and Sinn Féin coming out as the two largest parties. Ms Ferguson went on to criticise both parties for offering no definitive alternatives to the status quo, slamming the DUP for their willingness to go back into the Executive with Sinn Féin, and Sinn Féin themselves for having no red line issues in the event of negotiations.
Only the TUV’s Jim Allister expressed support for returning to direct rule from Westminster, slamming Stormont “as a squandering mess. If we can’t move from mandatory coalition to a coalition of the willing, then it’s not one worth having.” The TUV have long been consistent in their criticism of Stormont’s consociationalist structures. When questioned on their alternative’s role for Stormont, Mr Allister said he envisioned the Assembly as having a scrutinising role for the legislation put forward by British ministers.
The RHI scandal reared its spectre as the hustings went one, as Edwin Poots and Alex Maskey exchanged sharp words with another on the issue of accountability and transparency, leading to wider questions from the audience about parties publishing their donors. Out of the eight parties represented in the previous Assembly, only Alliance and the Green Party regularly publish their donations (all those over £500 for both).