Recognizing that community morale was at a low ebb and voter participation in serious decline a good ten years after the Belfast Agreement, it seemed the time had come to attempt to counter these negative developments. The decision was therefore taken in late 2008 to mount a series of political debate events in order to encourage and stimulate community participation in the issues of the day. The chief aim was to give the public an opportunity to engage directly in an open forum with some of their elected politicians on matters of real concern, thereby invigorating the level of exchange between the electorate and their representatives. The West Belfast Talks Back event had been fulfilling this worthwhile aim for some years already in that area of the city, and it was decided that a similar event could well be of benefit in the first instance to the East Belfast community, where employment opportunities had dwindled and engagement with the democratic process was in visible decline. It was hoped in due course to extend further afield across the province if initial efforts met with success.
In September 2009 we mounted our first event entitled East Belfast Speaks Out. This was highly successful, bringing Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) and Gerry Kelly (SF) together with other panellists in a question-and-answer town hall meeting with the local people (see Past Events 2009). In crossing traditional barriers in this way it was hoped that minds might begin to be opened up to the need for ongoing dialogue right across the broader community. Openness and frankness might then lead to social and political progress in the service of peace and forward movement within the province as a whole.
Audience turnout for this event was good at slightly under 200 people. However, the following year in 2010 we had to close the doors before the debate even began, as there were already over 400 people in the hall, despite the fact that we had been unable to publicise the names of our main guests in advance of the evening. (Permission to publicise was withheld due to security pressures dictated by the PSNI.) We did in fact bring both Peter Robinson (DUP), First Minister, and Martin McGuinness (SF), Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, as well as other leading figures to the public on that occasion (see Past Events 2010).
In 2011-12 we took a different approach that allowed for specific topics to be highlighted, while encouraging a broad range of questions as before and affording more opportunity to address local concerns. To this end we invited Mr. John O’Dowd (SF), Minister of Education, to be our chief guest. Alongside him on the platform were local politicians and community representatives, allowing for discussion of both local and province-wide issues (see Past Events 2011 / 2012).
Who are we?
We are a group of NI citizens from various backgrounds (business, academic, social science and community work). None of us belong to any political party, but we all very much believe in the positive value of participatory democracy and in developing a real sense of community as the basis for social and political progress. We also seek to foster actively harmonious relationships across the traditional divide in our society.
James Smyth DipPFS
Deirdre Vincent BA MA PhD
Catherine McGurk BSc
Peter McNiece BSc