Belfast Telegraph

Steven Agnew: 'I work with Jim Allister... it's known as the naughty corner'

By Rebecca Black

Born on a loyalist estate and initially not impressed with our political landscape, Stephen Agnew was inspired for a life in politics after a chance meeting a protest rally. He speaks to Rebecca Black.

Q. You have been a Green Party MLA for more than three years, what have you got to show for it?

A. In terms of changing the discussion I have brought the first motion on fracking and made it a big issue in the Assembly; it was already becoming a big issue within the community in Fermanagh. It was my first ever motion, and it was passed.

Unfortunately the minister has played semantics with the wording of that motion, it was calling for a moratorium and they have refused to implement the moratorium. Based on our wording she said it was an invalid motion.

It's hard to challenge that without a judicial review and judicial review is a hard way to do things.

So within a few months of election I got the will of the Assembly against fracking and it has remained so.

I proposed the first ever Assembly motion on an LGBT-specific topic - on equal marriage.

Whilst it wasn't passed, again it kicked off the debate.

I have had a number of motions debated, I don't have them all in front of me, but things such as home-to-school transport - that active travel should be at the forefront - and a motion about keeping Royal Mail in public ownership. That was a Westminster thing, but I got on public record the will of the Assembly in favour of it.

I suppose I'd like to answer this question in six months or even a year's time because my most important piece of work has been my private member's bill, it's a children's bill proposing a statutory duty for departments to co-operate. We hear so much about politicians not working together, if this bill is passed will put a duty on departments to work together delivering services to children and collaborating. What we have seen in the past is departments operating in silos.

Q. So nothing really concrete then?

A. Well I hope to have a finalised bill in the next couple of weeks and published before Christmas with the Assembly debate in the new year.

Q. But nothing concrete in terms of what Steven has achieved since 2011?

A. It's hard to quantify everything. I moved the Assembly on some of the issues I have outlined. A more recent one would be the living wage.

I put forward two proposals that all public procurement contracts should require the living wage to be paid to all workers delivering that contract, and I proposed the living wage for all workers in the new Education Authority which will be Northern Ireland's biggest employer.

Both were petition-of-concerned by the DUP so they weren't passed. But then just this week Sammy Wilson has said he supports a living wage. Given that only two weeks ago the DUP were petition-of-concerning living wage proposals, it suggests I am moving the debate forward.

Q. Do the other actually MLAs listen to you?

A. I think they listen to me when my proposals are reasoned, well considered and get public traction. They don't listen to me because Steven Agnew said it and therefore we should listen. But when Steven Agnew says it then it is reported in the media, and they begin to get emails from constituents, then they start to listen.

Q. What's the mood in the backbenches? The Green Party, TUV, N121 amd Ukip must be strange bedfellows?

A. There is certainly a comraderie, I don't think you could find much further apart politically than Jim Allister and I, but actually where we do work together is holding the Executive parties to account.

On speaking rights we all recognise we are in the same position. There are occasions when we chat amongst ourselves about who wants to speak on a topic because we know only one of us will get in, for example if someone has been particularly strong on one topic.

We did look at becoming a technical group but Standing Orders don't allow it. However, we act as a technical group in an informal way, like stepping aside to let others speak. We do have different political objectives but we do work together.

Q. Would you admire Jim Allister despite your very different perspectives?

A. Absolutely, I believe we both punch above our weight. Jim has a great ability in scrutinising legislation given his legal background and he is one of the most able politicans in the Assembly.

He has certainly effected change, I don't always agree with his proposals, but that is what we are there for.

Q. Effectively you and Jim are the opposition?

A. Well yes, and the other backbenchers. But Jim and I are the ones that have been there from the start, we got elected on platforms to challenge the status quo.

The naughty corner, as it is informally known in Stormont, has grown.

Q. Have you made the Assembly more green?

A. We certainly have the other MLAs looking over their shoulders and trying to prove how green they are.

For me the Greens are as much about social justice as environmental justice. We have probably made more progress on the social justice issues.

The two things are always interlinked, we still have a long way to go - environmental governance in Northern Ireland is poor and I can't sit here and say that is something I have changed but I have shone a light on it.

We have had unauthorised sand and gravel extraction from Lough Neagh for decades and it has now been stopped because I have raised it repeatedly with the minister, and brought it to his attention to the point where he can no longer ignore it and has put out a stop notice.

At this stage we are highlighting poor environmental governance, the next stage is to act.

Q. Is it the case that the bigger parties don't listen to you?

A. For them it is a side issue. I mentioned social and environmental justice being interlinked, the economy and environment can't be separated. If a public department has a multi-million pound clean-up cost for poor enforcement of regulations, that is going to affect our economy.

Two of our biggest industries are tourism and agrifood, if we don't protect our clean green image, those will be in danger.

Q. So people vote for you on environmental issues?

A. If you are talking about people who are environmentalists to the core and will always vote Green, that is around 2% across Northern Ireland.

But if you look at North Down where we just had John Barry re-elected to the council on 15% of the vote, that is down to ground work.

The old Green maxim is Think Global, Act Local but I think in the past we have thought global too much and not acted local enough.

Where we act local we get results. That's fighting to save your local park instead of fighting to save the rainforest.

I was at a protest against the proposed closure of the minor injuries unit in Bangor, and spoke to someone who said, I don't consider myself green, but I keep agreeing with what you have to say and I will be voting green.

That is how a Green Party representative goes from the 2% vote of people who instinctively vote green to in my case just short of 8% in the Assembly election.

That's the type of work we have to do, we don't have the historical loyalty that other parties have.

Q. So you are forsaking the rainforest for votes?

A. No, we haven't lost sight of those issues, it's what can you achieve. I am not personally religious but the serenity prayer - grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change - sums it up. Whilst we are part of the global green movement, we each work at different levels. I am in the Assembly and ultimately what I can change is within Northern Ireland.

Q. How did a boy from Ballybeen, a loyalist estate, end up becoming a Green Party MLA?

A. I was turned off by what to me was very negative political landscape. The unionism that was around me where I grew up was about being anti-Catholic, anti the Pope and anti-Sinn Fein. So I didn't consider myself to be political.

When I joined the Green Party I wasn't interested in politics, I was interested in human rights, equality and international affairs.

Turns out those were politics, but they weren't politics where I grew up.

For a number of years I didn't even vote which I am slightly embarassed about now, but the reality was I wasn't compelled to vote.

Until discovering the Green Party I did not believe there were politicians in Northern Ireland that represented me.

Q. So what changed all of that?

A. The Iraq war. I protested against it and asked my employer to decrease my pay to below the level of income tax so I wasn't paying income tax towards the war. I also stopped drinking alcohol because it was highly taxed.

I only bought the essentials so I contributed as little as possible towards the war that I saw as illegal. But that was fairly fruitless.

During a protest march from Queen's to the US Consulate I met John Barry, and he is an inspirational character.

He articulated what I believed and what I was passionate about, and the Green Party had a practical agenda of what needed to be changed.

I was more interested in social justice but came to see that environmental justice is interlinked with it. We produce the most of the carbon in the north of the planet and the south suffers.

Climate change is not something they worry about for the future, it is here now.

Huge communities suffer environmental emigration, having to move away from where they live and farm because the weather conditions changed.

Locally too with the flooding this week, it tends to be working-class areas that are repeatedly flooded, they are not getting the services.

There was insufficient pre-emptive work because in Northern Ireland we were still arguing about whether climate change was going to happen, we didn't realise it was happening.

Q. Do you live a low carbon lifestyle?

A. I try to. Part of the thing is making it easier to live green, it is not about wearing a halo and telling people to live like me, it's about making it easier to do so. I am well known in the local bus and train station. I get the bus to Stormont on days when I work 9-5 because the last bus to Bangor from Stormont is 5.15pm. In other days I have to bring in the car.

If I am going from Bangor to Belfast I get the train and find that much more pleasurable than driving.

Q. But very few people live with easy access to a train line?

A. Absolutely, I am five minutes' walk to a train station. We have seen significant increases in use of public transport, especially trains, but in terms of investment, we are only putting in enough to maintain what we have. There has been no expansion in services in decades - in terms of new routes. We have one of the worst public transport systems in Europe.

We had a regional development strategy of spending 35% of our transport budget on public transport, it is currently sitting at 19% so we are falling short of our own modest targets.

Elsewhere in Europe it is two-thirds in favour of public transport.

That's where we need to be heading towards, but we are moving further away.

We have too many big, vanity road projects, you can build as many roads as you want but you'll still have congestion.

Q. How many cars do you have in your household?

A. One, it is a Toyota Yaris. We pay something like £30 a year on road tax. I don't want to be a hypocrite, I want to be honest - sometimes I have to get a taxi home from Stormont. I use buses when I can, I use the car when it is my turn, I get taxis when I have to but overall there are less car journies.

Q. What about your home heating system?

A. We are looking at getting a new system because the one we have is old. We are looking at our options.

Q. Is it oil?

A. It's gas but a very old system and very noisy. Gas is better than oil and renewables better than gas.

That is something we are considering, but like everyone else we have to consider the costs so we will weight that up as a family.

Costs for renewables needs to come down to make to affordable for the many rather than the few.

Q. So, are you still a vegan?

A. No I am a vegetarian. The first principle that went when I got elected was veganism. It was for purely practical reasons. I still believe that a non-animal-based diet it the best one morally because I don't believe we should exploit animals for our own use. But pragmatically the number of working lunches you attend in Stormont where the only choice as a vegetarian is a cheese or egg sandwich.

Before I was elected I would have often brought my own lunch to those things or had snack bars. Life is just too busy.

It is down to both politics and parenting [Steven has two children, aged two and seven].

Life just got a lot busier is a short space of time.

Vegetarianism has become much easier now, veganism certainly isn't.

I still don't wear leather or use products that are tested on animals.

I was vegan from the age of 19 to 30.

Q. At school you were taught by two DUP politicians, clearly it didn't rub off?

A. Yes, well Sammy Wilson taught me economics and given he has recently promoted the living wage, I suspect if we sat in a room our economics wouldn't be too different but the policies of my party and his would be very different.

And then Michelle McIlveen taught me history for six months.

Nothing personal against Michelle but I was never interested in history at school regardless of the teacher so I took on board even less of what she said.

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