Belfast Telegraph

MLAs schooled by pupils

By Padraic Grant

Unionist politicians clashed this week as the issues of gay adoption and blood donation were once again raised, this time during a debate at Lagan College.

Over a hundred sixth form students attended the event and were afforded the opportunity to field questions to eight representatives of the political class.

The event was chaired by BBC reporter Martina Purdy, while the line-up included Jonathan Bell (DUP), Alex Maskey (Sinn Fein), Michael Copeland (UUP), Alban Maginness (SDLP), Naomi Long (Alliance Party), Basil McCrea (NI21), Claire Bailey (Green Party) and John Kyle (PUP).

It was the familiar topics of same sex adoption and blood donations that provoked such strong disagreement between Bell and McCrea.

Bell backed up Edwin Poots in his opposition to ending the ban on gay people donating blood and also asked the audience: "If you have two gay people and a man and a woman, if all other things are equal, which is better for the child?" McCrea, demonstrating his more liberal take on unionism, said that Bell had "taken 20 minutes to say nothing." His robust response garnered applause from the students. Bell also received a disapproving reply from Ellen Magee, the student who asked the original question.

Another controversial topic centred round the merits of integrated and shared education, two concepts that have emerged as solutions to religious and communal separation in education. The latter approach was criticised by Naomi Long who said: "Shared education often sounds like close proximity segregation. It is experiences that change people's perspectives. It's sitting in classrooms with people that are different to you and realising that they are your friends and not your enemies."

Head Boy Michael Lynch (18) said this was the first high profile that he had seen in his seven years at the school.

He explained that enthusiasm grew as the day progressed. "A lot of students, at the beginning weren't really interested. But as it went on and controversy came up - with Basil McCrea lashing out at Jonathan Bell - it really evoked interest, and that was the aim.

The event was geared at first time voters, with the idea that politicians could come in, say what they could do for young people, and inspire them to come and vote in next year's elections." Michael expressed his hope that the event would become an annual fixture.

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