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European election hustings, Belfast: vote for human rights

Yesterday evening's European election hustings staged in Belfast by the Coalition of Aid and Development Agencies (CADA), of which Amnesty is a member, may be the only occasion during the Northern Ireland campaign in which international development and human rights issues are seriously debated.

Even the casual observer of Euro-elections in Northern Ireland knows that the outcome at the polls is rarely determined by European issues, never mind the specifics of party positions on fair trade, aid, EU foreign relations policy and the like. Yet, given that the EU plays such an important role in these matters, this development and human rights Q&A with the candidates was all the more significant in giving an outing to these crucial issues.

All but the DUP were represented, although Bairbre de Brún and Jim Nicholson's apparent presence in Brussels (or Strasbourg – not sure which) meant that Sinn Féin and UUP/Conservatives fielded substitutes rather than the sitting MEPs and candidates themselves.

That left the line-up as Jim Allister MEP of the Traditional Unionist Voice, the SDLP's Alban Maginness MLA, Alliance hopeful Ian Parsley, the Green Party's Steven Agnew and stand-ins Sean Oliver of SF and Cllr Stephen Nicholl of UUP/Cons. The man with the plan was the BBC's Mark Devenport, who ably shepherded the politicians through the valleys and peaks of the debate, taking questions from the well-attended gathering at Belfast's historic Linen Hall Library.

First up for discussion was climate change: 'would the candidates support strong EU action at the big UN conference in Copenhagen in December?' Jim Allister had a typically straightforward and controversial (certainly among this crowd) response: 'No'. He elaborated at some length, but, while he is no longer a DUP man, he is basically of the Sammy Wilson sceptical school of no-human-impact-on-climate-change. The TUV man seized his opportunity to make the most of Diane Dodds' absence by joking that she had stayed away because she wouldn't know whether to offend the Environment Minister or the First Minister (both DUP, for the information of those outside NI) with her answer to the question. The audience enjoyed the joke, but the only applause at the end of this opening contribution came from the conspicuously well-dressed young men who had accompanied Allister to the event.

The rest of the climate change responses were more in line with the scientific mainstream and this was obviously an easy opener for the Greens' Steven Agnew who made the most of his opportunity to underline his Party's credentials as the true voice for the environment.

A follow-up question on whether or not the candidates would advocate vegetarianism as a way of reducing the impact of intensive cattle-rearing on climate change (to be fair, I think it was slightly more nuanced than this) induced a rare moment of near unanimity among the political rivals, as all confessed their partiality to the sausage and bacon of the traditional Ulster Fry (or full Irish breakfast, occupied six-counties repaste, etc). Stephen Nicholl, a man with a, ahem, comfortable figure, raised what would prove to be the biggest laugh of the evening by posing the rhetorical question: 'do I look like a veggie?'. Again, Agnew was in a position to stress his difference, as he revealed himself to be the lone vegetarian among the gathering. No surprises so far, then.

Questions on trade and aid followed, with solid, if slightly differing, answers from across the panel. Most had obviously done their homework by reading the CADA election manifesto, which set out the campaigners' wish-list for fairer trade and better aid from the powerful European Union. Alliance man Ian Parsley drew on his experience of past business dealings with South Africa (post-apartheid, I hasten to add, given the candidate's relatively tender age) to say that he saw no contradiction between free trade and fair trade, and wanted to see an end to EU protectionism which disadvantaged poorer nations outside European borders. Jim Allister wanted to ensure that aid was not wasted and was used to encourage indigenous development in the recipient countries.

A question from one audience member challenged the politicians for their views on whether or not the EU should link human rights records with preferential trade deals, quoting the bilateral arrangements between the EU and Israel, which have been recently called into question following the latter's deadly military offensive against Gaza.

Allister didn't want to see Israel punished for what he saw as legitimate action to defend itself against attacks from Hamas (noises off from the audience suggested this was not an overly-popular position), but acknowledged that trade and human rights could be linked as long as all countries were treated equally. Sean Oliver for Sinn Féin wanted to see Israel punished for its offensive and also backed a linkage between trade and rights.

Alban Maginness of the SDLP said he regarded himself as 'a friend of Palestine. And a friend of Israel. I see no contradiction between the two positions', but felt that Israel had to feel pressure from the EU to get it to follow-through on notional support for a two-state solution. Parsley, based on his previous visits to the territory, thought that most ordinary Palestinians and Israelis felt like pawns in a chess power-play and wanted to reach a peace deal. Striking a contrary position, Unionist & Conservative Stephen Nicholl rejected the idea of linking human rights with trade deals, thinking it too difficult to implement fairly.

With time running out, Allister moved on to another engagement, annoyingly just before I got to my feet to ask whether the panel would support EU members, including NI and the UK, responding positively to Hilary Clinton's call to Europe to assist the US in closing the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp, by providing refuge for those detainees cleared for release, but unable to return to their countries of origin for fear of imprisonment, torture or worse.

Parsley rejected the proposal, saying this was an American mess, not a European one, and that the US should repatriate the detainees within the US territory. SF's Oliver reckoned Ireland, whether north or south, should be willing to help the detainees and America, to bring the Guantanamo scandal to an end. Maginness noted that the UK's hands were not clean in the war on terror and that it should be willing to help, with NI in particular having a debt to America, that this favour might help to repay in part. Agnew backed the call too, noting that NI's record generally on receiving refugees made him 'ashamed' and that we needed to do more across the board on this issue.

Nicholl rejected Clinton's appeal, saying that while he had no problem with other European states receiving cleared detainees, he felt that the British press would hound such people and therefore they would be better off elsewhere. Mark Devenport joked that the UUP/Conservative position amounted to suggesting that these individuals could put up with water-boarding, but somehow wouldn't be able to stand the pressure from British tabloids. Mr Nicholl did not demur.

Well done & thanks to colleagues and Concern's Claire Hanna for organising the event and Mark Devenport for chairing.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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