Belfast Telegraph

East Belfast ‘speaks out’ with big name politicians

by Natalie Irvine

The wood-clad gymnasium at Ashfield Boys’ High School may be a far cry from the ministerial halls at Stormont, but last week it proved as effective at housing debate between the country’s biggest political power brokers — and the people.

More than 400 residents attended the East Belfast Speaks Out event, organised by James Smyth, to put questions themed on ‘the best way forward’ to the panel which included First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Also taking part were independent MLA Dawn Purvis, London Times journalist Liam Clarke, and Minister of State Hugo Swire. BBC political editor Mark Devenport was the chair.

The debate was quick to ignite after a member of the audience flagged up the recent BBC Spotlight programme, which highlighted that 84% of Historical Enquiry Team cases are focused in loyalist areas.

On this point, Dawn Purvis said: “How do we as a society find a way to deal with the past? The HET is one method of dealing with the past. But the inherent flaw is that there is no co-operation from former combatants.”

Mr Robinson said: “If people committed a crime, then as long as you can get appropriate evidence they should be brought to justice. It must be even-handed.”

Other topics debated were dealing with terrorism, the Assembly’s Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy (CSI), public sector job cuts, and university fees.

It was during the discussion of the £18 billion capital budget that was promised by the Labour government but not yet delivered by the Coalition that debate became most heated. Other panellists shook their heads when Conservative Hugo Swire claimed: “It was Labour that got us into this mess.”

Mr McGuinness said he had met with Gordon Brown two days earlier and was told by the former Prime Minister that he wouldn’t have cut this budget in the face of the national debt.

Mr McGuinness also posed a question of his own — ‘Why has Owen Paterson not attended this meeting?’

He added that neither Mr Robinson nor himself had seen Mr Paterson much since he became Secretary of State. Mr Swire said he took Mr McGuinness’s statement as a personal attack.

After the event, Mr Robinson said: “Events such as this are hugely important for government. The format allows panellists to connect with the people we serve and to develop a much greater understanding of the issues that concern them.

Mr McGuinness said the debate had provided the Executive with food for thought.

“People clearly believe that our goals of growing the economy, tackling disadvantage and the delivery of efficient and effective government are the best way forward,” he said. “People are rightly concerned about their jobs, the economy and the future.

“They are concerned about the cutbacks being proposed by the Westminster Government. We are united in our determination to do the best for our people.”

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