North Down Alliance Insight

This month I provide another insight into The Alliance Party in North Down.

December 2008: North Down Alliance prepare for 2009

With Christmas fast approaching The Alliance Party’s North Down Association Executive Committee met on Monday 8 December 2008 to plan future activity during 2009.

A wide ranging list of possible fundraising events for 2009 were discussed with agreement that a definitive programme of events should be finalised at the Association AGM in January 2009.

Those present at the recent Party Council meeting in Newtownards expressed the opinion that the meeting had been extremely positive focusing on the real issues facing the people of Northern Ireland.

Local elected representatives provided an update on recent issues such as the problems currently being experienced at the new recycling facilities provided by North Down Borough Council.

The economic downturn was also discussed with a general feeling that NI Executive has failed to react promptly and effectively by, for example, bringing forward many capital projects to help the construction sector.

The meeting concluded with a brief discussion concerning plans for the Association AGM in January 2009.

15 December 2008

A nation of lonely hearts

The BBC yesterday published a report entitled “Changing UK” focusing on Community Spirit across Great Britain.

The report and associated video coverage can be viewed by clicking here.

Whilst I have a few concerns about the accuracy of some statistics I strongly agree with the overall message that “UK is a nation of lonely hearts, with traditional community life fading away”

The breakdown of community life is, I believe, one the biggest problems currently facing society. It is affecting many aspects of everyday life and inhibiting the development of a safe, inclusive and sustainable society.

Individualistic concerns often mean that people are now more concerned with their own selfish concerns rather than the greater good e.g. burning fossil fuels and continuing to contribute to Global Warming via driving Chelsea Tractors whilst the threat of Climate Change increases.

Many different approaches have been advocated to deal with the breakdown in community life and its effects e.g. gated communities to prevent crime, return to moral values of the 1950s to tackle the rise in divorces.

I, not surprisingly, advocate a different approach which encourages people to focus more on well being rather than purely on wealth. This can be achieved through an array of means ranging from hard to soft options such as financially incentivising collaborative action and softer options were people are "nudged" to choose better options.

Whilst I intend to outline possible solutions to address the problem at a later date the BBC report serves as a timely reminder that the breakdown of community life is a significant and important issue that needs to be addressed.

2 December 2008

The Boyne Bridge

Below is a copy of the letter I today sent to the Editor of The County Down Spectator

Dear Editor

I write in relation to the ongoing saga concerning The Boyne Bridge.

In times of economic hardship I am amazed that Cllr Easton feels that spending money erecting signage bearing useless information is a priority.

I do not dispute that the bridge over the railway line on the Brunswick Road is, according to Ordnance Survey, named as The Boyne Bridge.

I do however dispute the reasons why Cllr Easton is pursuing his campaign for the Roads Service to erect signage on the bridge denoting its name.

It has been contended that the attempt to erect signage on The Boyne Bridge is a simple technical matter devoid of any political motivation.

Many bridges exist across North Down which don’t have signage denoting their name. I therefore contend that Cllr Easton has focused on The Boyne Bridge merely because of its name and all that The Battle of Boyne means.

To state that the focus on The Boyne Bridge is innocent and purely co-incidental insults the intelligence of most people.

The Battle of the Boyne was fought in 1690. 318 years later I suggest that Cllr Easton and his colleagues focus on the real issues facing North Down residents rather than shamefully appealing to jingoistic concerns.

Cllr Easton should stop fighting ancient battles and instead focus on building bridges with all sections of the community across North Down.

2 December 2008

North Down Alliance Insight

This month I provide another insight into The Alliance Party in North Down.

November 2008: November proves to be a busy month for North Down Alliance

The Alliance Party’s North Down Association Executive Committee has experienced an extremely busy month during November.

The month started with celebrations following the election of Barack Obama as US President elect on 5 November 2008. Commenting shortly after his election, North Down Alliance MLA Dr Stephen Farry remarked “His victory is a paradigm shift in US politics, and opens up new opportunities on the international stage. This has been a remarkable election, with two outstanding yet contrasting candidates. The election of a man with a multi-racial background, with a non-traditional name is a transformational moment.”

The Association then held its regular monthly meeting on Monday 10 November 2008. A wide range of topics were discussed at the meeting which was well attended as per usual. The North Down Treasurer again reported a healthy financial state of affairs with the Membership Officer yet again reporting the arrival of new members.

Local Alliance Councillors updated the meeting on work currently underway to determine Council’s budgets for 2009/10 with all in agreement that the current method of calculating rates was unfair. The Alliance Party’s position that rates should be replaced by a Local Income Tax was again agreed as the best alternative to the current system which plays little regard to the ability to pay.

North Down Alliance Alderman Marsden Fitzsimmons provided a valuable update on current activities at North Down Borough Council. Many of those in attendance were interested in the ongoing work to promote Christian Heritage within the Borough.

A general discussion occurred concerning the recent Home Coming Parade for troops who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan with all in agreement that it was right for the parade to go ahead, echoing a comment made by Dr Farry in July 2008 when he stated "irrespective of people's opinions regarding the merits of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our troops deserve much credit for their bravery in the line of duty”.

Following the meeting many North Down Alliance members then met again on Thursday 20 November 2008 for a “Question Time” style debate chaired by North Down Alliance Association Executive Chairperson Neil Dickey with Dr Stephen Farry MLA, Councillor Ian Parsley and Councillor David Alderdice serving as panel members.

A range of topics were discussed during the debate ranging from education, rural planning and sectarianism.

A general consensus emerged that whilst the recent proposals from the Church leaders had merit the Alliance Party’s overarching approach to education is to ensure all pupils can avail of the integrated approach if desired.

The meeting also reaffirmed the Party’s position that sectarianism and division should be tackled in order to enable sustainable long term economic development.

25 November 2008

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Benjamin Disraeli's quote "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" immediately came to mind today when I heard about Lisburn City Council's current survey which asks the public "Do you support the new planning application which will bring the first John Lewis to Northern Ireland?"

The online survey can be viewed by clicking here but, incredibly, only offers respondents to choose "Yes". People cannot choose "No", never mind "Don't know".

Whilst I support the latest John Lewis Planning Application, Lisburn City Council's online survey only serves to discredit their campaign for the application to be approved. It also provides yet further proof that the Council is both arrogant and unwilling to listen to different views.

19 November 2008

Change can happen

Like many others, I stayed up until dawn to witness the election of Barack Obama as President elect of the United States of America.

The magnitude of the event was probably best summarised by Wendy Austin on BBC Radio Ulster this morning when she recalled that someone had told her that the person elected could have been the slave of the first sixteen US Presidents.

Whilst I remain elated and amazed that the USA has managed to realise true racial equality after legislating for it in the 1960s I am also euphoric that politics has been shown in a positive light.

Far too often politics is characterised by negativity, lacking in courage, with politicians often seen as being less than honest and radical change next to impossible.

Obama's charismatic and frank messages of hope and promises of change have inspired millions of people across the World, re-igniting many peoples interest in politics.

With the electoral battle now won a bigger challenge now arises for Obama to maintain the electorates newly found faith in politics. I am confident he will meet this challenge and eagerly await his inauguration speech on 20 January 2009.

Whilst Obama's victory may be rather frustrating in Northern Ireland since we are stuck with politics dominated by the old norms I am however determined to continue the fight to prove that change can happen. To those who ask if Northern Ireland can have the politics of Obama I say, Yes we can!

5 November 2008

North Down Alliance Insight

In a new departure I now intend to provide a monthly insight into The Alliance Party in North Down.

October 2008: North Down Alliance reflect on successful Party Conference

A few weeks after The Alliance Party held it’s Annual Conference in Bangor the party’s North Down Association Executive Committee met on Monday 13 October 2008 with all in agreement that the Conference had been a resounding success.

Many members of the Committee expressed their delight that former Party Leader and MEP John Cushnahan had attended and delivered such an interesting speech.

It was generally felt that the mood had been extremely positive and that the Leader David Ford MLA had delivered a strong and clear speech especially when he remarked “We will play a constructive part in any way we can. But we will not be used to apply a sticking plaster over a serious fault line within the Executive. There must be fundamental reforms. I care too deeply about the future of this society to prop up a failing sectarian and sectional Executive.”

During the meeting the Executive Committee also made preparations for a number of future fundraising events including the opportunity to hear a speech in late November 2008.

Members were delighted to learn from Association Chairperson Neil Dickey that party membership had increased with Committee Treasurer reporting that finances are in an extremely healthy state.

The meeting received a briefing from local Alliance MLA Dr Stephen Farry who informed those present that the party was continuing to work in a constructive manner to break the ongoing deadlock at Stormont.

Concerns were expressed at the possible loss of 700 nurses which were seen as a direct consequence of Peter Robinson’s budget.

Members also received an update from Alliance Alderman Marsden Fitzsimmons who briefed the meeting on successful efforts by North Down Borough Council to promote Christian Heritage within the Borough and ongoing work by the Council to foster good relations amongst people of different race, religion and political opinion.

A brief discussion took place with regards to the proposed Boundary Changes to enable merger between North Down and Ards Borough Councils with agreement that the party should recommend that a number of proposed boundaries be amended.

The recently arrived circus in Bangor prompted discussion on the use of animals in circuses and the meeting concluded with agreement that the Association was opposed such abuse of wild animals.

22 October 2008

Another fine PPS mess

Today’s news has been dominated by the story that the case against the only person charged in relation to the Northern Bank Robbery has collapsed after the prosecution decided not to provide any further evidence.

This revelation provides yet more evidence that the Public Prosecution Service isn’t fit for purpose.

Shambolic events such as the trial which collapsed today only serve to further erode public confidence in the criminal justice system whilst those who perpetrated the robbery and subjected the McMullan family to disgraceful personal trauma continue to walk the streets freely.

As has been proven in recent months and years, the PPS seem to be incapable of carrying out their main duty to develop coherent cases and then professionally conduct prosecutions.

Whilst it’s important that the PPS is able to independently make decisions whether to prosecute without political interference it’s about time they were subjected to a greater degree of scrutiny.

They could start by adding accountability and transparency to their list of organisational values which currently omit such important values.

Representatives from the PPS could also start by appearing on the media and publicly answering the questions that many people now want answered.

Thursday 9 October 2008

'Go on then, jump'

Whilst listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday morning I heard the story of Shaun Dykes who was goaded by onlookers to jump off a multi story car park in Derby. You can listen to The Today Programme’s article about Shaun by clicking here and read about the story by clicking here.

Since listening to the story on Saturday I have been trying to work out how such an incident occurred.

Whilst it is clear that the police should have moved the onlookers away the fact that people goaded a man to take his life shines a light on the serious problems that now exist within society.

During the years of economic success I feel we have developed a society were people and politicians are “seriously relaxed about people becoming filthy rich” to the extent that many people have become concerned with themselves alone without any regard for others.

The general economic slowdown now being experienced across the world will hopefully encourage a move away from greed and an individualistic society towards one which is about inclusive communities and supporting each other, including those facing difficulties in their life such as Shaun.

Monday 6 October 2008

Spending more time with the family

I found today's news that UK Cabinet Minister Ruth Kelly has decided to quit as Transport Secretary to spend more time with her family rather interesting.

It seems to be a convenient excuse to hide her apparent discontent with Gordon Brown.

When I heard that she was leaving to spend more time with her family it conjured up memories of when Norman Fowler left Thatcher's Conservative Cabinet in 1990 to 'spend more time with his family'. Within two years he was back as Chairman of the Party, this time under the leadership of John Major.

Perhaps we will see Ruth Kelly back when a new leader eventually takes over to replace Gordon?

24 September 2008

Yes we can

Bangor today hosted The Alliance Party’s 2008 Conference at The Marine Court Hotel.

Our Party Leader David Ford MLA delivered an excellent speech remarking “I want to bring our agenda into government and deliver in the long-term where the tribal parties have failed”.

Deputy Leader Naomi Long MLA stated “The sad reality is that as Sinn Fein and the DUP continue to battle daily with each other, the biggest losers in those battles have been the people of Northern Ireland and the biggest casualty has been public confidence in politics”

Dr Stephen Farry MLA remarked “In another sense, there is growing evidence that those societies that are able to attract and sustain a mixed population tend to be more successful in that talented people are nourished. This truism illustrates the folly of the homophobia from the Iris Robinson's of this world”

Following the conference I managed to watch part of the match between Northern Ireland’s gay friendly rugby team The Ulster Titans and Bangor RFC thirds at Uprichard Park, Bangor. It was a great end to the conference which was about making the case for a Shared Future where everyone is valued and allowed to reach their full potential regardless of religion, race, sexual orientation etc.

During the morning session of the Conference I was given the opportunity to speak on a motion calling for publication of the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy. Below is the speech I delivered.

Conference, it gives me great pleasure to speak to you in support of this motion at what is my first Alliance Party Conference.

Everywhere I go in Northern Ireland I hear the same message. We want change.

The people of Northern Ireland are fed up with bickering and bigotry and want a government with ambition that dares to hope.

We live in a region where only 3% of people would object to having a person of the opposite religion as a neighbour. A region where over 70% of people wouldn’t mind if a relative or friend was in a relationship with a gay person.

But yet we have an Executive with Ministers and a First Lady preaching intolerance and prejudice.

People want a change. People want a political system which reflects the new Northern Ireland.

At the heart of the New Northern Ireland must be a society which embraces and celebrates diversity.

Government can help deliver this by providing leadership and a strategy for a Shared Future.

When devolution returned last year we were promised a new bigger and better strategy for a Shared Future but we are still waiting. It’s no where to be found.

Maybe CSI should be put onto the case to find the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Strategy because it seems to be unlawfully at large.

Whilst the Executive dithers and delays The Alliance Party need to continue making the case for diversity.

We need to outline not merely the costs of segregation but rather the opportunities of diversity.

Recent research has proven that cities, towns and regions which embrace and celebrate diversity attract high value knowledge based industries. We need to continually remind people and other political parties that intolerant and prejudicial attitudes don’t just harm minorities but also the economy we all thrive off.

We need to end the poverty of aspiration where people fail to hope beyond today, neglect to look to tomorrow and forget that bigotry and division not only damages lives but deters investment and consumes public expenditure.

We must continue spreading the Alliance message of hope and aspiration at every opportunity, whether it be in Council chambers, at the Assembly or maybe at the Executive table.

The people of Northern Ireland are increasingly looking for leadership, hope and change.

Day after day they ask the Executive parties whether they can deliver and the answer is a resounding no.

The only future the Executive parties offer is a mirror image of the past.

To those who ask whether Alliance can deliver my answer to you today is Yes we can.

Saturday 20 September 2008

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind

Yesterday I visited a number of historic buildings as part of the European Heritage Open Days. I visited Crumlin Road Gaol (HMP Belfast), Freemason’s Hall in Arthur Square, Cornmarket Belfast and then Stranmillis House and grounds.

Photos of Crumlin Road Gaol at

Part of the tour of Crumlin Road Gaol involved viewing the condemned man’s cell, the execution chamber and the graves of the people executed at the prison.

I found these parts of the tour particularly disturbing. Human life is, I believe, sacred. For the State to take a citizens life is, I believe, fundamentally wrong.

Some argue that execution for murder is necessary in order to ensure appropriate punishment is enacted. The words of Martin Luther King adequately summarise why such an approach is flawed when he stated that “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind”.

Sunday 14 September 2008

XL have excelled in causing misery and chaos

Early on Friday 12 September 2008 morning at about quarter past midnight a friend who works at Belfast International Airport sent me a text message informing me that another airline had went bust, this time XL.

I quickly realised this was the company who my mum and step dad were on holiday with. They had left over a week earlier for a Caribbean Cruise and were due to dock in Florida on Saturday 13 September to then spend a week in Florida before returning home on Friday 19 September 2008.

I quickly tried to research whether they would have somewhere to stay in Florida and be able to fly back but was confronted with loads of mixed messages.

Whilst getting ready for work on Friday morning I sent an exasperated text message to BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme commenting “Looks like XL have excelled in causing misery and chaos My mum & dad are stranded in the USA What an awful end to a holiday Andrew Bangor”. Within twenty minutes I was on air talking about the situation.

You can listen to my interview at

I also spoke on Citybeat and appeared in the Newsletter concerning my parents predicament.

As an update I can inform people that the hotel has allowed them to remain in Florida for the remaining week of their holiday and the Civil Aviation Authority are organising their return flight to the UK later this week. Some of their tickets to Theme Parks purchased via XL haven’t however been accepted.

As I stated on the radio people go on holiday to relax and enjoy a hassle free break not to worry about how to get home.

With more airlines and holiday companies likely to go bankrupt in the next few months it’s about time government reviewed the arrangements that are in place if companies go into administration. Arrangements should be simplified so that everyone is given the same support, regardless as to whether they booked with a credit or debit card or through ABTA bonded companies.

Sunday 14 September 2008

Helping charities at the press of a button

On Monday evening I listened to an interesting article on BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme where people withdrawing money from cash machines in Columbia are given the opportunity to donate 30p, 60p or 90p to charity at the press of a button.

Matthew Parris spoke about the scheme which allows people to press a button before finishing the transaction. A small amount of money is then transferred from your Bank Account to a nominated charity e.g. a Children’s Charity.

As Matthew stated, it’s a simple idea which could result in an awful lot of money for needy causes with many people often not refusing to make such a small donation.

Maybe something banks in Northern Ireland and the UK should consider introducing?

10 September 2008

Time for an end to the circus

I have just realised that I haven’t blogged for a while so here goes.

Over the last week a few issues have caught my attention.

John McCain’s surprise choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate for Vice President is amazing. As Mark Devenport notes on his blog
entitled “Sarah Palin MLA” her views seem to be very well aligned to DUP politicians such as Iris Robinson and Jim Shannon.

Sarah Palin’s views are so extreme that Obama might now be seen as “the establishment”.

Talking about Obama, his recent pledge to end US reliance on oil from the Middle East is refreshing but bizarre. Most nations are looking to reduce their carbon emissions to address the fear of global warming whilst, for the USA, their move to reduce carbon emissions is being driven by pure self interest rather than for global good.

On the subject of the DUP, their position with regards to the IRA Army Council now appears to be completely farcical. What do they want? Army Council to meet in order to agree not to meet? It’s about time they stopped looking over their shoulders to the TUV and arranged for the devolution of all local issues including Policing and Justice by the end of 2008.

Whilst we are discussing local politicians it seems apt to mention my concerns relating to a circus in Dundonald, home of the NI Assembly. The circus in question isn’t the NI Assembly but rather the “Australian Super Circus” which opens on 10 September 2008 on Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast.

I am not aware whether local politicians will be appearing as the clowns but regardless as to whether they will appear I am strongly opposed to this circus.

The “Super Circus” will feature elephants, kangaroos, emus, horses, dogs and ostrich.

Animals used in circuses are captives who are forced to perform confusing, uncomfortable, repetitious, and often-painful acts.

They often endure cruel training methods, suffer cramped confinement, unacceptable travel conditions and poor treatment.

I therefore call on the public to boycott this circus when it comes to town.

Friday 5 September 2008.

Worst floods in 50 years?

I went to visit my grandparents yesterday in Newcastle, County Down with my mum and step dad. Luckily he was driving the new BMW Estate Car rather than my Getz!

We had a lovely dinner and stayed until 5pm. When we left it was still raining. Tried to travel to Belfast via Newcastle but Shimna river had burst it's banks and road was impassable. Tried to get to Dundrum via Bryansford but road was also blocked with lots and lots of water. Then tried to get to Belfast via Newry but Hilltown was impassable as river had burst it's banks. Then went to Rathfriland and onwards to Banbridge. One mile from Banbridge road was impassable with river all over the road. Turned back and tried another route via Dromore and, thankfully, we managed to get onto A1.

Some really close shaves with water over bonnet, roads washed away etc. Eventually got to Belfast but then struggled to get through water in Dunmurry.

If we hadn’t a good geographical knowledge of South Down we would have been stranded.

Got home at 9.30pm when usually get home at about 6pm! Mum and I needed to use a toilet and had to ask some lady living near Hilltown whether we could use her toilet and she obliged. The generosity of people is amazing, with some out trying to clear water when they could have easily sat back and not offered assistance.

My mum is 50 and says she has never seen floods like what we experienced yesterday.

It was, however, the first time I have seen how chelsea tractors can be useful!

When I got home I was able to view scenes of floods across Northern Ireland via BBC News, Flickr and YouTube.

The scenes at Broadway underpass are simply breath taking.

As Wesley Johnston states in an extensive explanation of the Broadway disaster “It could be that this is not the first time we see the Broadway underpass submerged in water and the ensuing chaos”

The ongoing scandal of homes and roads repeatedly flooding must stop with Bangor’s Gransha Road again closed yesterday due to river bursting its banks.

I don’t however hold out much hope with the Environment Minister a self confessed climate change denier who feels these are one off events.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Omagh, ten years on

Ten years since the Omagh bombing my heart is full of sadness, love for those affected and anger towards those who killed twenty nine people, two unborn children and the physical and mental suffering endured by many others.

Two quotes seem to summarise how I feel today;
We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace.

At the centre of non-violence stands the principle of love.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Friday 15 August 2008

Leave Derry for London?

The Conservatives’ favoured think tank, Policy Exchange, today recommended “There is no realistic prospect that our regeneration towns and cities can converge with London and the South East. There is, however, a very real prospect of encouraging significant numbers of people to move from those towns to London and the South East.” The regeneration towns in question are, for example, Liverpool and Sunderland.

Whilst the report has generated lots of headlines with David Cameron describing it as “insane” it has had one positive impact by triggering a discussion on regional development and urban regeneration.

In Northern Ireland towns West of the Bann and Derry / Londonderry have historically been ignored in favour of Belfast.

Recommending people from Derry move to London is plainly daft with society moving towards a knowledge based digital economy.

Now is the time to develop all of Northern Ireland and stop the environmental consequences arising from the daily commute done by many people from Omagh, Bangor, Enniskillen, Lisburn and Derry to Belfast.

The NI Executive can take a lead and start decentralising government from Belfast to other areas across Northern Ireland.

Countdown to China Olympics

In a few hours the 2008 Olympics will commence at Beijing, China.

China’s appalling Human Rights abuses are well documented and often publicised by organisations such as Amnesty International. I’ll therefore spare readers with the disgraceful details of the abuses committed such as their sale of organs taken from executed prisoners.

Some argue that countries should not send their athletes to the games because of the abuses but I disagree. Taking such an approach deprives athletes of a chance to participate and has proven ineffectual when you consider previous precedent
e.g. Moscow Olympics in 1980 which were boycotted by 62 nations led by USA.

Presidents and Prime Ministers from participating countries can however show their opposition to China’s Human Rights abuses by refusing to attend the ceremonies and supporting peaceful non violent protests.

It was therefore with great regret that I watched President Bush arriving in China last night to attend the opening ceremony. His mere attendance was stomach churning, compounded by his smiles and waves to the awaiting public as he left Air Force One.

I look forward to watching the games over the next number of days in awe at the sporting excellence of the participants and the courage of those who will use the event as an opportunity to highlight the Human Rights abuses inflicted by the Communist Government on its citizens.

Now is the time to pile on the pressure for change before the Olympics are over and the spotlight dims.

Now is the time for an end to executions, fair trials for all, respect for human rights defenders and freedom from censorship.

Friday 8 August 2008

Same sex parenting

Yesterday I appeared on BBC Newsline 6.30 to discuss the issue of same sex parenting.

You can view the article and interview on YouTube by
clicking here or BBC News website.

The key issue in relation to same sex parenting is, of course, what's best for the child.

Instead of saying that gay people aren't good parents the focus should be on addressing the homophobia in society that dissuades many good gay people from bringing up children.

Gay parents are just as good as straight parents.

Barnados do not exclude adopters on grounds of race, gender, age or sexual orientation. Barnardo's policy for some years has been to assess all potential adopters or foster carers exclusively on their ability to provide a loving, stable and secure childhood for a child, or children, who are often disadvantaged and sometimes have had an inadequate upbringing.

American Psychological Association stated in 2004;

“there is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation: lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children".

Wednesday 16 July 2008

No spin please

On Saturday Twelfth of July I visited Belfast City Centre to watch the annual Orange Order parade at Shaftesbury Square.

Whilst I was impressed by the colourful nature of the parade and the accompanying music I was startled to see many people openly consuming alcohol in front of police officers. I was even more startled when I noticed that this was occurring in front of the Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde.

If this occurred on any other day of the year the police wouldn’t flinch from taking swift action to enforce Council bye-laws which expressly prohibit consumption of alcohol in Shaftesbury Square.

We were informed by Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland that on-street drinkers met with a "robust approach" on the Twelfth. If being allowed to drink in front of the Chief Constable is “robust” I dread to think what “softly softly” looks like.

Whilst I welcome the lack of violence and confrontation experienced and congratulate the police and community workers for making this possible it’s about time to the police stopped spinning and injected a degree of sincerity into the issue of on street drinking.

If the new “normalised” policing arrangements don’t cater for mass on street drinking on one day a year please tell us. Then we will be able to adjust our lives to the fact that enforcement of the bye-laws is temporarily suspended on the Twelfth.

Homophobia in Sport

On Tuesday 19 February 2008 Northern Ireland’s DUP Sports Minister accused the Ulster Titan’s Gay Rugby team of attempting to “develop an apartheid in sport”.

Mr Poots stated that “it would be unacceptable to produce an all-black rugby team or an all-white team or an all-Chinese team. To me it's equally unacceptable to produce an all-homosexual rugby team and I find it remarkable that people who talk so much about inclusivity and about having an equal role in society would then go down the route of exclusion."

After Alliance Party Executive Director rightly exposed the Minister’s comments as nothing more than a homophobic rant designed to distract attention from current DUP difficulties I felt it was important to ascertain hard facts as to why Ulster Titan’s exist.

During the next few months The Rainbow Project undertook research concerning Homophobia in Sport which as released last weekend.

The research findings are startling but not surprising.

Three-quarters of respondents stated that they thought there was homophobia in sport, in particular in team sports, in NI that might stop gay or bi-sexual people from taking part and only four per cent said there was not.

Over three-quarter of the respondents who played team sports were not out to any or only out to some of their team mates.

Half of the respondents stated they had wanted to play a sport but had decided not as they were afraid they would not be accepted because of their sexual orientation.

Forty-one per cent had stopped playing a sport because they had experienced homophobia directed towards them or found the general attitude to be homophobic.

As Mark, one of the men who took part in the research stated: “I love watching and playing football and support Rangers. I am a member of a Rangers Supporters’ Club but only a few people know I am gay and if someone makes an anti-gay comment I just laugh and pretend it doesn’t matter. I did play for a (football) team in the past, but left when someone found out I was gay and I started to get bullied. Maybe I should wait for someone to set up a gay football team instead!”.

In the current climate in NI the need to have clubs where people who are gay or bi-sexual can get involved in sport without having to hide a large part of their identity or be fearful of homophobic comments is clear.

It also has to be noted that this research did not investigate the homophobia that exist in professional sports where homophobic chanting from the terraces is quite common, very few fans are openly gay and where in the mid-nineties the only openly gay professional footballer, Justin Fashanu, committed suicide after being subjected to ongoing and vicious homophobic abuse from fans and team mates.

As Jim Crawford, Physical Health Development Officer for The Rainbow Project states:

“Mr Poots was wrong when he made those comments; it is not the people who set up sports clubs for those who are gay or bi-sexual who create apartheid in sport. Our research has clearly shown that apartheid in mainstream sports is already alive and kicking and the ball, so to speak, is now firmly in Mr. Poots’ court. As Minister for Sport in NI he should take responsibility for commissioning further research and initiating actions to address this apartheid in sport in NI which is responsible for the exclusion of a substantial part of our society.”

The Secret Garden and the bubble car

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to see work underway to restore the Walled Garden in Castle Park, Bangor.

I was extremely impressed at the work being carried out by North Down Borough Council to open up what was previously a very Secret Garden.

On my way to the garden I was amazed to see a bubble car, resembling the image above. After attending the Irish Transport Trust Bus Rally at Cultra the day was truly special. It seems that the car was manufactured by Peel Engineering.

27 April 2008

Shared communities are sustainable communities

"Shared communities are sustainable communities".

Not my words but the words of Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Chairman Gerry Millar.

As reported in today's Irish News, the RICS have launched their three year manifesto.

Commenting, Gerry Millar confirmed my belief that a Shared Society is the only way forward to deliver a successful economy with a sustainable environment when he stated “Addressing division is without doubt one of the biggest and most pressing challenges facing Northern Ireland today”.

“Massive expense is incurred by paying for duplicate facilities to serve our divided community and division causes inefficiencies and waste that increase Northern Ireland’s ecological footprint and are impeding the economy’s ability to reach it’s potential”

“It has been recognised that social inclusion is the bedrock of civilisation and shared communities are sustainable communities”.

“This means greater efficiency and cost savings, enhanced quality of life and healthier local and global environment”.

Martin Luther King forty years on

Today marks the fortieth Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jnr.

Since my childhood I have considered MLK to be my idol.

MLK passionately believed in human rights and equality and was able to convey this passion to the public in a clear motivational manner.

Despite the challenges he remained opposed to violence, choosing dialogue and non violence protest instead of the cowardly and fundamentally wrong option of bombs and bullets.

Whilst I believe in a secular society where no one religion is imposed on others MLK was right to be driven by his Christian beliefs. Christianity can have an enormously positive impact when properly interpreted. God put us on earth to love not hate.

Forty years after his murder many people continue to distort gods message in order to justify discrimination and intolerant attitudes.

On this day I urge everyone to review Martin Luther King’s correct interpretation of Christianity and follow the example set by MLK, best described when he stated “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend”.

Launch of GLAD

Earlier this week I had the pleasure to attend the launch of Gay and Lesbian across Down (GLAD) on Monday 10 March 2008 at Betty Blacks.

I am really proud to have worked with others to establish North Down and Ards LGBT group in January 2007.

Over a year later it was amazing to celebrate our First Birthday and launch a re-branded group now known as GLAD with a new name, wider remit and enhanced range of services.

Monday night was one of the proudest moments in my life, for the reason I detailed on the night.

“Back in 1996 when I came out as a gay man I was living Bangor. It was a completely different place than today. I felt excluded, isolated and alone. Today in 2008 I am now again living in Bangor. I feel valued in a part of Northern Ireland which embraces diversity and provides hope of the future.

I am truly impressed to have so many local Councillors and MLAs present here tonight. Your support for us is greatly appreciated.”

To have Mayor of North Down Councillor Doctor Stephen Farry MLA, North Down Ulster Unionist MLA Alan McFarland, Ulster Unionist Councillor James McKerrow and Chief Superintendent Graham Shields present meant the world to me.

To receive endorsement from such a wide range of people sent a strong message to me and other lesbian, gay and bisexual people that being gay is okay.

It was also great for Betty Blacks to openly welcome us to their premises.

I look forward to the future with lots of hope and tons of enthusiasm.

Victoria Square, a celebration and challenge

I decided to visit the Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Belfast yesterday. Two words immediately came to my mind when I viewed the new centre. Celebration and challenge.

Victoria Square is a fantastic celebration of the economic success Northern Ireland has enjoyed post ceasefires.

Victoria Square is also a massive challenge. A challenge to society to reach out and include those who have been left behind by the economic progress that has occurred. Those who continue to live in poverty and those excluded due to the intolerance and ignorance of others.

The opening of Victoria Square should provide the impetus to everyone across Northern Ireland to work together to create an inclusive shared society.

First Alliance Party event

Attend my first official Alliance Party event today in South Belfast. Annual General Meeting and quarterly Council meeting.

A warm welcome was again extended and already feel at home with friends.

Got the opportunity to speak and was warmly received. It's clear now that The Alliance Party are the only vehicle for a Shared Society.

Delivered the following speech:

Alliance Party Council 1 March 2008, Andrew Muir speech

Council, fellow Alliance Party members, some of your may be aware that I recently left the SDLP to join Alliance.

The reasons why I left the SDLP have been well reported.

Today I want to talk about why I joined Alliance.

I want to talk about the future, not the past.

My decision to join Alliance was, like most people, driven by my heart and my head.

In my heart I dream of a Shared Society.

In my head I know that without a Shared Society we cannot have the strong economy and sustainable environment that Northern Ireland urgently needs.

But why do I dream of a Shared Society.

The answer is simple.

“Separate but equal is not an option. Parallel living and the provision of parallel services are unsustainable both morally and economically”

Not my words but the words of “A Shared Future”.

No wonder Sinn Fein and the DUP want to get rid of it.

Without parallel living their own future as political parties is in doubt.

We all know the economic costs of division. Spending £1.5billion each year on segregation cannot continue. A strong economy and sustainable environment cannot be built whilst we waste 20% of our budget every single year.

The lack of a Shared Society frustrates me intensely.

Day after day I see, feel and taste division and discrimination.

I see an economy struggling to compete on the world stage.

I feel my own pain when I recall the lives lost of friends through suicide, caused because of the intolerance of others.

I taste it when my own stomach churns after I recall the worlds of a former Junior Minister who described me a repulsive, offensive and obnoxious simply because I am gay.

For Northern Ireland to have a truly Shared Society political parties such as the DUP and Sinn Fein need to contemplate their own demise.

Until they make that decision it’s up to Alliance to help them along.

Thus far I think we have been doing a very good job.

But what does that Shared Society look like?

In some ways its uncomfortable reading, even for me.

In the New Northern Ireland diversity is embraced.

That means that everyone, yes everyone, is treated as equal citizens.

Members of the travelling community, people with disabilities, lesbian and gay people, foreign nationals, transsexual people, even Ian Paisley Junior are welcomed and embraced.

For the last number of years Alliance has shown that they are the only political party capable of delivering that New Northern Ireland.

It is for that very reason that I joined Alliance.

Alliance have the courage to dream beyond today.

It’s time for a strong economy

It’s time for a sustainable environment

It’s time for a Shared Society

It’s time for Alliance

My first blog

Welcome to my blog. This is hopefully the first of many entries!

The past week has been a momentous one for me.
I announced my decision to leave the SDLP and join Alliance on Monday.

More information on my move can be found at Alliance Party web site and Slugger O'Toole thread.

BBC Stormont Live accidentally promoted me to MLA on Monday, as per photo!

When the SDLP were made aware of my decision to move to the Alliance Party they condemned me for having ambition.I am not ashamed to admit that I do indeed have ambition.

Ambition for a Shared Society.

Ambition for a strong economy.

Ambition for a sustainable environment.

Ambition for the Alliance Party.

Ambition for Northern Ireland.