Brendan Mulgrew: Why we should open our doors and engage with prospective MLAs

NEXT STOP STORMONT: As the election campaign reaches its conclusion, if your door is knocked by candidates, you should open it, engage, emphasise your own priorities, and then make an informed decision

AS part of the Assembly election build-up, the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce hosted its now traditional ‘Five Leaders Five Days’ series of events, where the leaders of the main political parties make their pitch to an audience of business representatives and assorted third sector representative organisations.

The routine is familiar by now. Each leader makes a speech for 20 minutes or so, then fields questions from the audience and any media who may have turned up.

It remains a worthwhile exercise and it is useful to see the political leaders up close and in person, away from the TV cameras and set piece political theatre where they feel they have to play to their core base of voters. In truth all the leaders were impressive, each in their own way. So what did we learn from the events?

Well firstly, if you take Jeffrey Donaldson off the back of a lorry and out of the earshot of the blue bin brigade of social media loyalist extremists, he is clearly a thoughtful, sincere political leader who has thought out plans for how an incoming Executive should set its priorities.

Naomi Long has a grasp of detail so extensive that it almost weighs her down, but again, she is very impressive and does not ruffle easily. The UUP’s Doug Beattie sort of abandoned his speech and spoke around a series of bullet points. It was quite refreshing to hear the leader of a political party being so open and honest about what he knows and importantly, what he doesn’t know, but is willing to learn.

Claire Hanna was a late replacement for SDLP leader Colum Eastwood who was held up in London. Being dropped in with little notice clearly didn’t trouble her as she took every question thrown at her with insight, personality and even a little self effacing humour, she was on balance the start performer throughout the week.

The last speaker was Michelle O’Neill, who again was impressive and very calm and collected, even more impressively so given that she faced the biggest media phalanx of the week and she was quite happy to take their questions at the end of her session.

Given their lead in the opinion polls, Sinn Fein could be forgiven for saying as little as possible during this campaign. The more the DUP point up the possibility of a SF First Minister the bigger the smile on the face of that parties' strategists and candidates.

However, Michelle O’Neill did specifically address the performance and future of both the Department for the Economy and Invest NI. She was critical of both and set out some of the ways a Sinn Fein Economy Minister would change the focus of economic development and the perceived regional disparity in the way each devotes resources, attention and potential investors. It was clear that she had thought about the event, her audience and come up with a specifically suitable policy suggestion.

The mood among the audience at each event was unequivocal - the business community wants a settled Executive, wants to see devolution restored as quickly as possible after the election and wants the parties here to work together to deliver the economic prosperity that is possible and can be delivered.

There was no support expressed from the floor for the extreme position adopted by the DUP on the protocol, the desire for a settled political set up was the overriding factor. That actually was matched from the speakers, as each spoke of their plans and hopes for a new Executive. It was almost as if the anti protocol gather up rallies didn’t exist.

In another business event in the same week, this one hosted by Retail NI, Edwin Poots was one of the speakers, and following his address an audience member directly chastised the DUP for having collapsed the Executive. The applause which greeted that comment was loud, unanimous and sustained. That was the first time I had seen that instinctive kick-back against the actions of one of our local parties given such clear expression and I am sure it did not go unnoticed by the outgoing Lagan Valley MLA who has pitched his election tent in south Belfast.

At yet another event in the same week hosted by the MAC Arts Centre representatives of most parties (SF didn’t send anyone) heard impassioned pleas for more support for the arts sector here. While there was frustration expressed from the audience at the year on year decrease in arts and culture spending by successive Executive Ministers it was expressed in an informed and balanced way. The two way dialogue was genuine and sincere.

There is value in such events, even if the political representatives might sometimes feel they are better off spending time knocking doors and canvassing voters. But that two way exchange of views is an important part of civic engagement, across all sectors. Well done to the NI Chamber, to Retail NI and to the MAC and other organisations for getting our parties around the table.

As the campaign reaches its conclusion, your door is likely to be knocked soon by aspiring MLAs. So open it, engage, emphasise your own priorities and then make an informed decision. Our politicians deserve that.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate ( Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Paul McErlean

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