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Issues preventing Stormont revival still as divisive as ever, Feile learns

Dr Jennifer Cassidy, moderator Noel Thompson and Michelle O’Neill at Feile event last night
Dr Jennifer Cassidy, moderator Noel Thompson and Michelle O’Neill at Feile event last night
Nelson McCausland, Dr Jennifer Cassidy, Noel Thompson, Michelle O'Neill and Neale Richmond
Nelson McCausland answers a question
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

A Fine Gael politician who said Sinn Fein should return to government at Stormont without any preconditions was met with shouts of 'no' and 'never' from a west Belfast audience.

Senator Neale Richmond told Michelle O'Neill that her party should get the Assembly and Executive up and running again and "take ownership" of the same sex-marriage debate, abortion and other issues.

Urging the party last night to place no preconditions on forming a new government with the DUP he said: "Just get on with it."

But his appeal met with a negative reaction from the audience. The Sinn Fein deputy leader said his statement was "typical" of Fine Gael's attitude to Northern Ireland.

She said her party had a democratic mandate, and had "won" the Assembly election held after the collapse of the institutions over the cash-for-ash scandal.

Sinn Fein was in ongoing negotiations to restore devolution but while "people want government, it has to be good government", she said.

"Whose rights should I give up?" she asked Mr Richmond.

Ms O'Neill said that while the DUP had "turned up" at Stormont during devolution, it had never embraced "partnership and inclusivity".

The exchanges took place at the West Belfast Talks Back event in St Louisa's College on the Falls Road. Other speakers in the Feile an Phobail event included former DUP MLA Nelson McCausland and Oxford University politics lecturer Dr Jennifer Cassidy. It was chaired by the BBC's Noel Thompson.

In response to a question from the floor on the proposed legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion here by Westminster, Ms O'Neill said it was wrong that rights available elsewhere were denied to local people.

"If you are in love, you should be allowed to get married. The North is quickly becoming a backwater because citizens are being denied rights by the DUP. That is unjust and intolerable. These issues must be addressed," she said.

While it was "far from ideal" that Westminster was legislating on these issues, London had human rights commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, the Sinn Fein vice-president said.

Mr McCausland noted there were anti-abortion protesters outside the venue. "I doubt they are from the unionist community," he said.

He referred to resignations in Sinn Fein over abortion, which he said was one that didn't follow normal political divisions.

While pro-choice campaigners focussed on "hard cases", including fatal foetal abnormality, the vast majority of abortions were not for these reasons, he stated.

"The organisation that says both lives matter is absolutely right," he said to applause from some members of the audience.

Dr Cassidy said she agreed with the position that "it is my body, my rights, and my choice", adding: "We need to trust women that they will make the right decision."

Mr Thompson asked for a show of hands in the audience on the issue of legalising same-sex marriage and abortion, with a clear majority supporting the moves.

A member of the audience said there seemed to be no need to legalise same-sex marriage as less than 1% of the gay community here was in civil partnerships.

Another audience member said civil partnerships weren't popular because they didn't offer full legal rights. He said 300,000 people had taken part in the Pride parade in Belfast last weekend, and he didn't understand why the DUP was against same-sex marriage.

Mr McCausland voiced his opposition and warned of a "slippery slope". He said when civil partnerships were introduced, it was pledged that that was enough. He said he agreed with the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

"That was in the 1600s, Nelson," a woman shouted from the floor. "It was also the 1700s, the 1800s, and the 1900s," the former DUP MLA replied.

Ms O'Neill described abortion as a "very sensitive and emotive issue". While she understood other viewpoints, "women are being failed" and "denied modern healthcare", she said.

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