The Belfast Telegraph’s Tell Us About It roadshows illustrated how bread and butter issues preoccupy us, says editor Mike Gilson
In truth we didn't know what to expect back in September when we launched Tell Us About It. The plan was straightforward. Our reporters would travel to various towns and cities across Northern Ireland on a mission to find out the hopes and fears of the inhabitants of the province.
It was a very simple, almost old- fashioned, task. We'd simply take our notebooks and ask them on the streets.
In the evening of our visit we would invite local politicians and movers and shakers to sit on a Question Time-style panel and be grilled by residents who wanted to come along. TV journalist Lynda Bryans would play our Dimbleby, but with considerably more charm.
That was the Tell Us About It roadshow. I simply felt that it was a good time to test the temperature, find out what people were really talking about. Was it what politicians on the Hill or even journalists in Royal Avenue were talking about?
So after the end of our two-month odyssey what is the answer? Well, the truth is that we have plenty to ponder. Here's my overriding impression. People are fiercely proud of their local community yet they are absolutely not shy of telling you what is going wrong with them. And while they care about the state of the economy and the macro issues of the day, it is through the issues on the streets and neighbourhoods where they live that the concerns manifest themselves. Parading, political infighting, paramilitaries? Forget it. Clean streets, jobs, health care? Let's talk.
Nothing could illustrate this better than the issue of boarded-up buildings. It really is remarkable how many of our towns and cities are blighted by derelict buildings and boarded-up shops. As resident after resident reminded us, this affected the quality of life and feel-good factor in all communities. There was a recognition that the issue fed into the larger debate about the economy, but there were some imaginative local suggestions for solutions.
I loved the way the public were fearless in holding politicians to account. My favourite encounter was in Portaferry, Co Down. It was my first visit to this charming town. I came across on the Strangford Ferry as a rainbow arched over the brightly coloured houses.
But at the meeting that night a local councillor paid the price for suggesting there were actually four poop scoop bins in the town (dog fouling was a major issue everywhere!) when a local resident knew there were only two, could tell you exactly where they were and also where others had been removed by the council. Our chastened councillor said he would go back to the town hall to investigate.
And a word about the politicians who joined us. Their stock has probably never been lower but I have always taken the view that they enter public life to try to do some good. A minority fall by the wayside on this mission and it is right we expose them when they do. But for the last two months they gave up their time on dark evenings to be grilled by our journalists and the public and I thank them for that.
Thanks to the local authorities who hosted us and gave us a place to get out of the rain. It was always raining. They showcased their communities beautifully. And thanks to the journalists who pounded the streets. You can keep the T-shirts.
So, did Tell Us About It end on Monday night in Belfast City Hall? Hell, no. See you next year.
The state of our nation? Anxious, hopeful, proud...
By Linda Bryans
It can be difficult to gauge the state of a nation at any given time but the Tell Us About It roadshow which visited eight towns and cities in Northern Ireland provided fascinating insight into the varied moods and outlooks of parts of the country.
I was particularly moved by the desire of people from Portaferry to Londonderry to make their towns and cities better places for their children on the one hand, and yet were very appreciative of the improvements in their overall living standards in the last 20 years on the other.
There is no doubt that Northern Ireland people are anxious about the future. After 35 years of violence, the economy which looked so promising for five years, has suddenly been dealt a body blow.
Towns like Ballymoney and Newcastle, Lurgan and Omagh all have proud heritages and histories, but if they are expected to compete with their counterparts in England, Wales and Scotland, there is no doubt that they are starting with a heavy handicap. If Portaferry was on the south coast of England, it would surely still have a bank and no boarded-up town centre shops and houses. If Enniskillen was in the Norfolk Broads it would be a mass tourism destination.
And yet Northern Ireland people are not complainers. We may moan and whinge a bit, but the work ethos is as strong as it ever was.
The unifying message from all our visits and encounters was a resounding call: all the country needs is some support to finally shake off its past, to help it back on its feet again and to provide a level playing field for our businesses to compete.
From Ballymoney to Belfast, Fermanagh to Portaferry, people from all over Ulster told us their worries over jobs, crime, facilities and transport
“If we had a referendum to save grammar schools I believe that would be an overwhelming ‘yes’. A lot of parents would like to see changes in the education system, but before they want to see changes they say ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bath water’.”
DUP MP IAN PAISLEY JNR
“In spite of all the good work that has been done, I believe there is more sectarianism in young people across the towns and villages now than there has been. If that is the case, then it’s alarming.”
SINN FEIN MLA DAITHI Mckay
“Ballymoney is easily the place to live. We live longer here and really, in all honesty, apart from a wee difficulty in getting shoes mended, Ballymoney is great.”
DUP CLLR EVELYNE ROBINSON
\[Shane Donaghey\]”There really are not enough clothes shops here in Ballymonoey. It means we often have to take a trip into Coleraine or Ballymena for most of the things we need, which can be quite annouing sometimes”
MATILDA McCORMICK (76
“There aren’t enough trains running between Ballymoney and Ballymena. I have to wait here in the town until 4pm nearly every day and if I’m kept late in class I have to wait until 6pm and then I miss my connecting bus.”
TYLER McDOWELL (18)
“For me parking for the disabled is a big issue.”
ALISON KELLY (44)
“It is one big traffic jam. People coming into town can't get parked.”
DANIELLE LOUGHRIN (20)
“If you want chip shops and pubs and pound shops it is great, but for anything else it is a stretch.”
KATHRYN LINDSAY (26)
“There are no jobs here, that's my main issue.”
ROBERT COURTNEY (26)
“These past few years have been tough for traders.”
“One of the issues Translink has with the centre of Craigavon is when there are difficulties they are very loath to run buses after a certain time. So we have to address that because buses are hijacked, cars are hijacked.”
DUP MP DAVID SIMPSON
“We need to encourage people to talk about mental illness.”
COUNCILLOR GLEN CAMPBELL
“We are very optimistic about Omagh’s future.”
LORAINE GRIFFIN, OMAGH CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
”There’s an opportunity to cut rates bills by 35% and create 50 jobs if bin collections were put out to private sector tender.”
MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, MD OF RECYCO COMPANY
“Ever since the Northern Bank closed, the only bank we have is in Kircubbin, seven miles away. It’s especially hard for the elderly.”
“Portaferry’s a good place to live. I moved here 42 years ago from Belfast and find the people are very friendly.”
“We can put pressure on traders to extend their range and support them. We don't support them by dialling up to Asda and Tesco and getting the stuff down.”
“When you think about fuel poverty, you think about little old ladies freezing, sometimes literally, to death in their houses. It is totally unacceptable.”
UUP MLA BASIL McCREA
“I think more needs to be done to make sure people feel safe in Belfast on a night out.”
KRYSTAL ALLEN (24)
“For me, the most important issue right now is to protect our status as a city of arts. I would be concerned that it could be a casualty in the spending cuts.”
BRENDAN MULGREW, MD, STAKEHOLDER
“My main concern is the job situation. More money is needed to create jobs. I also think something needs to be done about the transport system, it’s a nightmare.”