NI Assembly election: Hustings events remain key part of campaign

Jim Wells
Image caption In March the former DUP health minister Jim Wells told the BBC his party was going to avoid election hustings during this campaign

Back in March the former DUP health minister Jim Wells told the BBC his party was going to avoid election hustings during this campaign.

It is easy to understand why Mr Wells took that view, given the furore over the controversial comments he made during a discussion of same sex marriage at a hustings event before last year's Westminster election.

Not surprisingly, Mr Wells' colleagues haven't observed any hustings boycott.

Paul Givan, for example, turned up to a debate I hosted at a school in the Lagan Valley constituency last month that featured a number of would-be MLAs.

Then, earlier this month, Mr Wells himself attended a hustings type event that concentrated on health care provision in South Down.

As I write this blog, I am listening to the DUP's Carla Lockhart contributing to the BBC Talkback's Upper Bann constituency debate alongside other candidates. It's the latest in a series of lively hustings style broadcasts Talkback has brought us from some constituencies .

While some politicians might find them uncomfortable, local hustings remain a valuable way for voters to test their would-be representatives' bona fides.

Searching across the web, you can find farmers disgruntled that the DUP and Sinn Féin didn't turn up to their debate at Loughry College in Mid Ulster.

In Foyle, an independent candidate, Dr Anne McCloskey, stirred controversy when talking about abortion during an event organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities.

Image caption Gerard Diver found himself in difficulties on the Nolan Show

If you want to know what some of our local parties had to say about same sex marriage and other issues of interest to the LGBT community, you can check out this video stream of a North Belfast event held earlier this month.

For their part, Christian voters have been questioning candidates about their stance on the issues at a series of events held at church halls across Northern Ireland.

Before others accost me for not mentioning their debate, I should stress that I am trying to provide a flavour of what's been going on, rather than an exhaustive list.

Of course if you were able to add up the total number of people who attend such events, it would probably only be a tiny percentage of those who vote on 5 May.

Party strategists might, with some justification, regard those who attend hustings as more likely to be committed activists for particular causes rather than floating voters. But that's democracy for you, and rather than replacing them, broadcast debates and social media have tended to complement traditional hustings.

Of course it's not only at a hustings event that a politician can drop the ball.

With Stephen Nolan continuing to cast his eye over the detail of manifestos, the SDLP's Gerard Diver found himself in difficulties over the costings of his party's manifesto.

The party pledged to fund initiatives such as its Strong Start Fund for children and reduced tuition fees through the cash provided to Northern Ireland by George Osborne's latest budget.

Image caption Martin McGuinness launched the Sinn Féin manifesto on Wednesday

That contained what's known as a Barnett consequential of £223m for Northern Ireland, but while Mr Diver initially assumed this was per year, Stephen Nolan was able to point out the sum from the Treasury is in fact spread out over four years.

On the face of it, that sounded like a gap of a whopping £669m in the SDLP costings. However, later the party insisted its key pledges still remain fully funded through the budget process.

As Mr Diver was wiping the sweat from his brow in our Radio Foyle studio, elsewhere in Derry, Sinn Féin was launching its manifesto.

If Arlene Foster can have a five-point plan, then Martin McGuinness had to have a 10-point plan.

If some of the two parties' objectives sound awfully familiar, it's because they are both drawn from previously agreed Stormont initiatives. Although, of course, Sinn Féin's Point 10, "Building The Momentum Towards Irish Unity", is conspicuous by its absence from the DUP plan.

Elsewhere on the election trail, the Ulster Unionists have been citing the latest setback for a £300m regeneration project in Belfast as evidence - in their view - of the executive's failure to deliver, while Alliance crossed swords with the SDLP over the future of St Mary's Teacher Training College in West Belfast.

Nigel Farage also paid East Belfast a visit predicting that UKIP would win Assembly seats, despite the retirement of his outgoing MLA David McNarry.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption UKIP leader Nigel Farage paid a visit to the East Belfast constituency

So far, to be honest, it hasn't been the most exciting assembly election campaign I have ever covered, but perhaps the BBC Leader's TV debate, which is on Tuesday night next week, will provide a spark.

Alternatively, if you've been to a local hustings which you thought was as exciting as last year's gathering in Downpatrick, then let me know.

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