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East Belfast hustings: Applause for all election candidates as church goers are inspired

By Liam Clarke

Published 14/04/2015

Niall O Donnghaile
Niall O Donnghaile

"You have home advantage - it's like Northern Ireland playing in Windsor Park," I joked with Gavin Robinson before he faced the voters last night.

Until recently, the DUP candidate was a worshipper at Stormont Presbyterian, but started attending Willowfield Church of Ireland - last night's hustings event venue - last year. If he was thinking politically it was a smart move.

But home advantage didn't go that far. "It's a mixed crowd," he told me, and a fair one too.

All candidates got clapped warmly, and Naomi Long got particularly strong applause when she spoke about attacks on Alliance during the flags protest. She and Ross Brown of the Greens also got applauded for opposing austerity measures.

There were no raised voices but the gap between Sinn Fein and the DUP was as wide as ever. Niall O Donnghaile's one gesture to local sensitivities was to give the English version of his name, Niall Donnelly.

The organisers were clear that the event was to encourage Christians to vote, join political parties and become active. There were little cards on half the seats urging Christians to change the culture of our society. There were questions about "beginning of life and end of life issues" but the audience didn't react to them very strongly.

Under Peter Lynas' leadership, the Evangelical Alliance, which has actually been here 125 years, has a new edge.

In many ways it is reminiscent of the religious vote in America, and the hustings opened with prayers for divine help for our politicians.

But unlike the US version it wasn't recognisably right wing on economic issues, and the audience seemed concerned about austerity. There was no shouting or chanting of religious phrases like "Amen" when people expressed their faith.

Mr Robinson went the furthest. "I am in politics because of my faith not despite it," he said, before expressing his opposition to assisted dying and abortion. Ms Long struck a more cautious note, speaking of "freedom of religion" but also "freedom from religion" in the sense of not being compelled to conform to other people's religious principles.​

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