Last Thursday, Feb 2nd 2012, saw the holding of the third East Belfast Speaks Out event with a panel made up of: Minister for Education John O’Dowd (SF), MLA Chris Lyttle (Alliance), MLA Sammy Douglas (DUP), MLA Michael Copeland (UUP) and Councillor John Kyle (PUP) and chaired by the BBC’s Mark Davenport. Organised to encourage and engender greater political participation in East Belfast civic society, it offers a beacon of possibility for ownership of the political process in a community dogged by unemployment, significant social issues and apathy towards the political system that is supposed to serve them. The event was also covered by Slugger O Toole, Alan in Belfast and East Belfast Diary.
East Belfast is not alone in its lack of enthusiasm for the political system. The 2010 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey indicated that 47% of those surveyed felt that the assembly system meant that nothing gets done, with more than half of those surveyed said that they were dissatisfied with the way MLAs were doing their job. This lack of confidence in the system is typified in the statistics regarding electoral turnout. Electoral commission figures reveal that the 2011 election register, “contained the largest number of people registered to vote at an election in Northern Ireland since individual electoral registration was introduced in 2002” (Electoral Commission report, 2011, p.14). However, high registration levels were not reflected in voter turnout, in fact the 673,260 who did vote represented the lowest turnout to date for an Assembly election (Electoral Commission report, 2011, p.24) with “just over 7% fewer people voting than in 2007” (p.14) in spite of a multi-media public awareness programme campaign in March 2011.
In late 2008 Deirdre Vincent and James Smyth, in response to the continuing decrease in voter participation and general low community morale, set about developing the first East Belfast Speaks Out event. The West Belfast Talks Back event, ran as part of the Féile an Phobail festival, was already in place at this stage and Vincent and Smyth saw the opportunity for a similar type of public political forum to address East Belfast. The event organisers are from a variety of backgrounds but share “the positive value of participatory democracy and in developing a real sense of community”. Organiser James Smyth says that they hope to increase participation in the political process by allowing face-to-face engagement between the politicians and those they represent. As the figures above indicate, this year’s ‘Speaks Out’ event continued to take place in the shadow of a lack of confidence in the political system and political representatives has remained. However, it is still a nascent project and, as observed at last week’s event, offers hope for greater community participation by handing the power of the direction of topics back to those in attendance.
The tone of the audience-lead discussion was set by the panel being unaware of the questions to come, which made Mark Davenport’s job of chairing the discussion more challenging but ensured that the event avoided seeming staged or choreographed. Questions reflected some of the community’s key concerns, including: covering the dearth in adequate care for the mentally ill; housing so damp that residents were suffering from severe health issues but unable to get new appropriate housing; the issue of transfer tests as an added pressure for already pressurised students; the problems associated with ensuring young men stay in education and the provision of suitable schemes and training for the unemployed; the value and relevance of the Supergrass Trials; the on-going issue noise pollution for those living under the City Airport flight-path; the question of whether integrated education serves the community and any aspirations of full reconciliation between Northern Ireland’s communities; and what MLAs are doing to progress the creation of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
The discussion was a realisation of civic engagement with their human rights and those they voted to protect these rights. The enthusiasm of those present belied the statistics on electoral indifference but also represented only a microcosm of the electorate as a whole. The passion for engagement with politics and rights represented at East Belfast Speaks Out needs to be nourished and supported to ensure it spreads and influences.
The East Belfast Speaks Out model offers the opportunity for the issue of voter apathy to be addressed and for the “folks on the hill” to recognise the issues that matter to their electorate and act on them. EBSO co-founder and organiser James Smyth has said that they would love to see other communities in Northern Ireland to adopt their formula and to help facilitate similar events across the region’s constituencies. Events like this present an alternative to voter disinterest and a sense of disconnect between the electorate and their representatives. It puts responsibility for the democratic process into the hands of both politicians and those they serve. As the 2010 East Belfast Speaks Out poster said “Meet your politicians, Speak to them, Not about them!” James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.