Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland politicians given grilling by Good Friday generation

By Lesley Houston

Eighteen years after peace was officially ushered in by the Good Friday Agreement, first-time voters have told our politicians how they want Northern Ireland to look in the future.

The coming-of-age teens and other young people grilled representatives of the main parties on contentious issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, which have both dominated headlines in recent weeks, as well as the bread and butter politics of jobs and education, particularly tuition fees.

Responding to a passionate attack from the audience on the DUP's petition of concern on the gay marriage vote taken in the Assembly earlier this year, candidate Alistair Ross restated his party's stance that it "stands for traditional marriage".

He said he recognised "societal views are changing among young people" but said those views were not shared by wider society.

Some of the audience at the televised BBC programme hosted by Stephen Nolan and Tara Mills were of the opinion that the petition had been used by the DUP simply to "block" a democratic vote.

The UUP's Doug Beattie said that although his party, bar one member, voted against gay marriage, he restated he was pro-gay marriage and had lobbied his colleagues prior to the last Assembly vote on the controversial subject.

Turning to the emotive issue of abortion, young voters expressed both pro-choice and pro-life views, with many stating "women should not be criminalised" or financially discriminated against if they can't afford to go to England for a termination and choose to use abortion-inducing drugs.

On sectarian issues in politics, the so-called Good Friday generation audience was told by Mr Ross that his party consistently concentrated on issues outside tribal lines "towards a more normalised society".

Asked if he would sit in a government led by Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness if the DUP failed to secure the largest vote to keep leader Arlene Foster as First Minister, Mr Ross said "we would recognise the democratic vote", but refused to answer the question, and that of the likelihood of forming an Opposition in such a scenario. "As any party would say - we are going out to win the election," he insisted.

On the same issue, Sinn Fein's Chris Hazard said "we must not forget we are a post-conflict society" with "unique" difficulties, and said "we are prepared to go into government", but also refrained from answering yes or no on the twin issues.

Mr Beattie stated: "Any real democracy has a Government and an Opposition to hold it to account, and yes we need an Opposition."

Daniel McCrossan of the SDLP said "we don't go into an election to go into Opposition", but said it could be up for consideration following the outcome of the vote.

Addressing a concern from one young audience member that there was not a party that could attract his vote, Naomi Long said she joined the Alliance Party many years ago to "make a difference".

"Choose the best fit; you won't always get a perfect fit," she told the young man.

David Jones of Ukip said his party would provide a real future for young people, abolishing student fees for STEM subjects, provoking accusations of bias against arts subjects from one first year university student.

Belfast Telegraph


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