NI Assembly election: 'Newsnight' and Eastwood double


'Our own little Newsnight'

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The panel of candidates were grilled on everything from Brexit to Ballyclare's roads

There's nothing like an old-fashioned town hall hustings in the run-up to an election to make politics personal.

And on a wet Wednesday night with Storm Doris brewing, about 150 people in South Antrim filled Ballyclare Town Hall.

Under a glittering disco ball in the former dancehall, they challenged the candidates vying for their votes on 2 March.

The health service, the RHI scandal and Brexit were raised as the campaign's headline issues, but the state of the town's Rashee Road was highly emotive, too.

The event had been organised with just a few days' notice by Robert Robinson, who said people should see they "have the ability to change things".

That was reflected in an audience he described as being switched on, with "their issues in their pockets".

"The political dynamic is changing and people want to bring politics back home," he explained.

"People from Northern Ireland are motivated and they want answers."

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The hustings was an attempt to "bring something back to the community" Robert Robinson said

Street pastor Alastair Armstrong said there had been more "backward steps instead of frontward steps" at Stormont in recent times.

"But tonight I've been encouraged because there's been quite a lot of young people who've been involved in asking question about their community," he added.

First-time voter Ben Lowry, 18, said he still wasn't sure who would get his first preference next week but the debate had "certainly helped".

"Politicians have to realise the future lies with young people, and they have to work together for young people in particular," he said.

One man, whose interest in politics has only recently been sparked, said Northern Ireland needed to be "brave" and "elect somebody new" to ensure political progress.

Many voters, he said "know what they want" but were not prepared to abandon "green and orange" parties.

"I think we have a low voter turnout because the parties aren't there that represent the voters' views," he added.

One woman said the hustings had been like "having our own little Newsnight" - referring to the BBC current affairs programme.

"Getting to speak to the politicians directly, to ask the questions that were individual to each of us, to have the eye contact, to feel like we were holding them to account, was really interesting," she said.

"I like the idea of having them back again a year later!"

Seeing double?

Image source, James Barnard
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Separated at birth? Colum Eastwood (top) and James Barnard could easily be mistaken for one another

As the party leaders hop from one end of Northern Ireland to the other, the leader of the SDLP has used his Eastwood Express to tour the constituencies, but has he also been employing a body double to head out on the canvass?

It appears that Colum Eastwood has a striking doppelganger, who could come in handy in the final furlong of this campaign.

London-based James Barnard has jokingly offered to stand in for the nationalist candidate at pre-election parties, should he be required.

Mr Barnard was at a gym on Tuesday night when he spotted an election report on the BBC News at Ten, featuring Mr Eastwood.

Image source, James Barnard
Image caption,
Mr Barnard's wife once mistook a photo of Colum Eastwood for her husband

He decided to put together a spot-the-difference series of photos, recreating some of the SDLP leader's poses from the campaign trail and tweeted it to him.

The resemblance is so striking that Mr Barnard's wife once mistook a photo of Mr Eastwood for her husband.

He is, however, missing a couple of key features.

Firstly, he can't replicate that distinctive Londonderry accent - he's originally from Lincolnshire, and that won't cut the mustard when it comes to political grillings from the press.

And then there's that peculiar little white patch on Mr Eastwood's beard.

The graphic designer said he wouldn't be dying his beard, but he has another solution, as he could use a bit of digital trickery to complete the Eastwood look.

Creating a healthier Belfast

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Dozens of people were at the MAC ion Belfast for an election debate on health issues

Always one of the primary issues at polling time, health has been high on the agenda again in this election campaign.

In Belfast on Wednesday, health charities, support bodies and trade unions put their questions to candidates at a hustings event hosted by the Belfast Healthy Cities organisation.

The focus was on changing lifestyles - greater freedom for breastfeeding mothers and wider access to green spaces, for example - and on adding sustainability to the health service, through social care reform and investment in mental health services.

Joan Devlin, the health policy and promotion organisation's chief executive, said Stormont needed to commit to long-term plans to tackle inequality in the health system.

She said that instability at Stormont could hamper plans to press forward on those plans, adding that it was "essential" for parties to agree on health matters.

"Having the assembly obviously gives us much closer contact to our ministers and they obviously have a much greater understanding of the key issues," she said.

"But if we can work with civil servants in developing those long-term strategies that will have an impact on improved living that would be an acceptable way forward as an interim."

Rachelle Adams, a masters student in sustainable development at Queen's University in the city, said she still had to be convinced that words from prospective politicians would ultimately become action.

"I really question how it's going to be implemented in practice," she said.

"I don't know if sustainability is really on their agenda, and the social detriments of health, like the increase in the number of people with lifestyle diseases and the focus on preventative care.

"I just hope it's not aspirational, and they're really going to implement it in practice."

BBC News NI's Campaign Catch-up will keep you across the Northern Ireland Assembly election trail with a daily dose of the main stories, the minor ones and the lighter moments in the run up to polling day on Thursday 2 March.