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Sunday, 3 June, 2001, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
Northern Ireland's politicians quizzed

Northern Ireland's leading politicians took your questions in a live forum.

BBC News Online spoke to four representatives of the main parties on your behalf as part of a series of special election webcasts.

Subjects covered included policing, the Good Friday Agreement, decommissioning, health and education.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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News Host

Hello and welcome to BBC's Northern Ireland News Online Forum on the upcoming election. My name is Noel Thompson, this is first post-devolution election in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been up and running now for some time and is looking after quite a number of areas of local government.

Nevertheless the Westminster election is an important one and it's being fought by all the parties with every tooth and every nail. The Good Friday Agreement of course remains the focus of politics in Northern Ireland and the outcome of this election will have a major impact on that agreement, whether it continues in its present form or not. There are still many issues to be resolved, the reform of the police service, at the moment the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons from the Republican and the Loyalist sides.

Now I'm joined by representatives of the main parties, first of all Alex Attwood from the SDLP, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, that's a Nationalist party and we say it's mainly Catholic, although there may be some Protestants who would support it. In a separate studio is St Clair McAlister of the Democratic Unionist Party, now Mr McAllister's in a separate studio because his party says it will not give credibility to the members of Sinn Fein who are also with us here today. So they won't appear in the same studio although that relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein may become an issue in our discussion. And with me from Sinn Fein is Joe O'Donnell and you're all very welcome to the programme. We hope to be joined, in fact I believe we will be joined by Tim Lemon, a representative from the biggest Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party but we'll draw in a chair for him as and when he arrives.

Okay we've had loads and loads of questions from all over the country and they don't all concentrate on the main constitutional issues, the economy has also been raised so let's just plough straight in with a question from Drew Hard from Oxford who asks very simply, are you all for the single currency. Joe O'Donnell is Sinn Fein for the single currency?

Joe O'Donnell

Well I don't think that question can be answered in just as small terms as that. We would take a learning attitude towards Europe and also towards the European currency, whether that will be good or bad for Ireland has yet to be seen. If we move forward and as I say, embrace Europe with its advantages and disadvantages it would possibly be a good step forward but it's yet to be seen whether it's beneficial for the smaller countries within Europe for example.

News Host

The Republic of Ireland is completely committed to the single currency and indeed it will be operating it, perhaps when the North of Ireland is not operating it?

Joe O'Donnell

Yes.

News Host

So many people say that that will prove to be disadvantageous for Northern Ireland, where will you stand on that?

Joe O'Donnell

Well as I say again look at it, it has to be taken within context of Europe and for example the Nice Treaty which we would be opposed to.

News Host

The Nice Treaty which is for the expansion of the Community?

Joe O'Donnell

Yes and also as I say it may disadvantage smaller countries such as Ireland, but it's yet to be seen so.

News Host

So you're sitting on the fence basically?

Joe O'Donnell

Yes.

News Host

Okay, Alex Attwood, your party is wholeheartedly European?

Alex Attwood

Yes it's been one of the defining features of the SDLP in the Northern political landscape that we have been so pro-Europe and rightly so because Europe as a model for good politics since the Second World War and in terms of the benefits it's brought, especially to the Republic of Ireland, it is something that works on behalf of the people of this island. I'm not surprised to hear what Sinn Fein say because there's one thing that Margaret Thatcher, Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley all have in common and that is that they are hostile to the Euro, they're hostile to the European Union and indeed in previous elections were arguing that we should get out of the European Union. What would be the situation on the Island of Ireland if we were now in splendid isolation from the European Union and the economic and other benefits that it's brought to the people of this island.

News Host

Well of course the British Government itself is sitting on the fence on this one.

Alex Attwood

Yes they're sitting on the fence but they'll get off the fence and that they will, in due course, I have no they will doubt commit themselves to the Euro. Indeed the Prime Minister has said that when certain criteria are fulfilled he will recommend to the people of Britain that they go in and it's no coincidence that William Hague has quickly got off the Euro bandwagon in recent days because it's not going down well and it's not popular. They've learnt the lesson, it's past time when other parties on this island like Sinn Fein and DUP learn the lesson as well and that is that we're part of Europe, we're pro-Europe as a people on this island and good for it.

News Host

Alright St Clair McAlister, Alex Attwood has identified a point of commonality between you and Sinn Fein, what is your own position on the Euro?

St Clair McAlister

Well Alex is quite right, we're opposed to the Euro for several reasons. First of all there's the question of sovereignty, by being subsumed by another monetary system or, or a monetary system that would be throughout Europe you'd be obviously reducing your sovereignty. But of course this is one of the big problems with Europe in general, it's the reducing of the different nation states into a United States of Europe and with that obviously all the tax harmonising and the reduction of your own Westminster Parliament. So there's much more that lies behind the Euro than just the question of changing it. Also on the pure economics, and obviously we could get very complicated here, but if you compare what people say to us who are for the Euro - that America has a dollar and it's a big country except there are different states etc.

The big difference is that when you go to America for all the main commodities roughly they're all the same price. Now obviously if you buy a house in the middle of New York it's different from one out in the countryside but if you take your ordinary every-day groceries, your petrol, all the things that people spend most of their money on, they're at the same average price, there is a United States of America. That's not the case in Europe. You've got a difference in petrol to start with, you've a difference in what people earn, so if someone had said in simple economics whenever you can make wages exactly the same, social conditions exactly the same and all the commodities that we buy exactly the same there might be a case of looking at it on an economic basis, but we have not reached that stage and we're far from it.

News Host

So you're happy to sit in splendid isolation?

St Clair McAlister

Well again Alex Attwood said about splendid isolation, there are lots of countries throughout the world who are not in conglomerate and who are not subservient to any particular Euro or Dollar and they're surviving alright. You see the assumption's made that there, like the Belfast Agreement, there is no alternative but this. There's lots of alternatives and economic systems throughout the world and people are surviving quite well outside them.

News Host:

Okay thanks for that for the moment, I'm pleased to say we're now joined by Tim Lemon from the Ulster Unionist Party, he had to dash, have you had a chance to compose yourself?

Tim Lemon

I have indeed, thank you very much.

News Host

You're very welcome to the programme. We're talking about the Euro, do you like it or do you not?

Tim Lemon

I have to admit I would be against the Euro, I think it would be a bad idea on economic grounds.

News Host

Are you a businessman?

Tim Lemon

Yes I'm a businessman. I can't say it's altogether bad but I do think it would be a bad thing for Britain. I think it would be bad for the simple reason that we find it very difficult at the minute to set exchange rates and interest rates in the United Kingdom which is best for the whole United Kingdom. You know every time the interest rates go up or down by a great amount the North complains it is bad for them but good for the South, and the South complains it's good and things like that. If you then take it across 15 or even 20 countries each with four or five different regions within it, how can you set a rate which is good for everybody. The answer is you can't and what you'll find is the strongest and wealthiest countries in it, in that conglomerate will have the greater say on what the interest rates should be and that'll be bad for the smaller countries. And even Britain as a big country I think will have difficulties within that sort of system, you see at the minute within the Republic of Ireland the exchange rate isn't really what they want to have but yet they're having to put up with it.

News Host

Alex Attwood you're clearly the odd man out here today how do you answer these worries of the other parties?

Alex Attwood

Well if you look at the global market at the moment there'd be a criticism made that interest rates, for example, are determined by the German and American economies and financial institutions so we have a situation at the moment where big powers have a big impact upon interest rates and economic development. What the Euro will enable is a much more collective mechanism whereby the members of the Euro mechanism will have the ability collectively to agree what's in the interest of the many, not which is determined by the big and I think that's a much more relevant and successful model of interest rate determination and overall financial planning.

News Host

It's not a bit of wishful thinking though as well, the big players always have more influence don't they?

Alex Attwood

Well, well if you look at the European model, the way it has been structured over the last 20 and 25 years, there has been a balance of power within the structures between small and the large and as a consequence all within the system, not least the small, have benefited. So why if the European model has worked and worked well for Ireland, being a small nation, why should there be any or that much difference if it is applied to the concept of financial management and the Euro in particular.

News Host

Are you convinced Joe O'Donnell?

Joe O'Donnell

No absolutely not, I mean Alex spoke earlier about sitting in splendid isolation, it hasn't done Switzerland any harm sitting. It is one of the major financial players in the world market. I think it a more pragmatic attitude is to wait and see, if it works, if it's viable, if it doesn't have a damaging effect on the smaller countries then well and good. But I mean a wait and see attitude. I mean again Alex, it's a case of waiting and see. Let's be perfectly clear about this, part of the Nice Treaty will be that the major dominant countries will have influence and control over the economy and the interest rates of smaller countries.

News Host

Alright let's move on, a question from Ann Gregsby in Belfast and this is about, do you support a woman's right to abortion and the party's attitudes to domestic violence. Let's start with St Clair McAlister, women and abortion, Sinclair McAllister?

St Clair McAlister

Well our party have been quite clear on this, we're pro-life and we're against abortion except in the case of medical advice where someone's life is at risk because we want to speak out and politicians and governments should speak out for the one person in the whole equation that can't speak for themselves, that's the unborn child and someone has to defend the unborn child and speak for it. It, in this abortion debate, doesn't have any vote, doesn't have any veto, it just has to accept what the rest of society applies to it, a life or death sentence and we feel very strongly about that and I think governments have responsibility to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves and in this sense that's the unborn child.

News Host

Well what, what do you do about it, you know that there are thousands of women from this island who go to England to have abortions, abortion is at the moment a fact of life, what services, what resources do you offer to try and stop it happening?

St Clair McAlister

The situation is that there has been a breakdown of the family, you know, no doubt that morals have shifted and moved over the years and there's a lot of social problems there. I'm not suggesting that you just put up the barriers to it and do nothing else about it, I think there has to be a full investigation of how the problem arises, how we deal with that as a society but I know that as an individual that I do not think it's right to take life and I would personally be quite prepared to have increased tax or whatever the case may be to support those children that are not wanted and that society should make them cared and loved for.

News Host

In the meantime of course there is, for want of a better world, a safety valve that we don't really have to deal with it here because the women in need can go elsewhere to, to have abortions?

St Clair McAlister

Well I mean that doesn't make it right, because someone can go to some other country.

News Host

No but it means you don't have to do anything specific to deal with it because it becomes not your problem?

St Clair McAlister

Well that's what I'm saying but it should be all of our problems to deal with the whole issue. But while we're talking about dealing with the issue, surely it can't be right to continue to take innocent lives?

News Host

Okay thank you for that. Joe O'Donnell I understand it's a bit of a difficult one for your party, you would claim to have a very progressive social agenda and yet you, your voters would probably be at least 99.999 per cent Catholic, where do you stand?

Joe O'Donnell

I don't think it's a difficult question at all, in fact I think it's a very complex issue and a very sensitive issue. Sinn Fein are not in favour of abortion but in saying that we take a very progressive and pragmatic view of it. What we'd be saying is that there should be a comprehensive sex education programme obviously put in place. There should be full and free access to child care. There should be comprehensive support services including financial support for single services and a non-directive counselling programme put in place. Now if all those issues were addressed I think that is a very progressive attitude to take.

News Host

Do you believe in the right to choose or the right to life?

Joe O'Donnell

No, as I've already said, we are not in favour of abortion.

News Host

So when you say non-directive counselling, that means you're not, you're not advising one thing or the other yet your party policy would be, we are opposed to abortion?

Joe O'Donnell

What we're saying is that non-directive counselling where people can have access to the advice and service I've just outlined, would make people aware. A comprehensive sex education programme, full and financial support for single parents, people who are, who have a dilemma with abortion, we feel that they should have the information to deal with it.

News Host

Right, part of this advice would, if these people wanted it, would direct them towards somewhere where they could have an abortion, although your party policy is opposed to abortion?

Joe O'Donnell

What we're saying is they should have the advice.

News Host

Okay, Alex Attwood?

Alex Attwood

Well our party policy is that we're opposed to abortion, we're opposed to the extension of the 67 Abortion Act in Northern Ireland.

News Host

Which actually, as you have just explained, is the reason why women have to go to England to. To have abortions from Northern Ireland because the 67 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland?

Alex Attwood

And so that is the party policy. And the party also says that we have to understand the personal, social, economic and other factors that give rise to a woman choosing the option of abortion and that we need to put in place the mechanisms, the support structures. But all of that is dealt with in a way that people who become pregnant in whatever circumstances choose the option of life rather than choose the option of abortion.

News Host

But if you were the government here and the Abortion Act were to be extended here, would you allow there to be abortion clinics in Northern Ireland?

Alex Attwood

Well I don't think that situation's going to arise.

News Host

Well, but in principle, I'm to establish principles here.

Alex Attwood

The principle that we have as a party, I think this is reflected across the mainstream of Northern life and across the parties, is that none of the parties favour the extension of the Abortion Act and therefore that's not going to arise and therefore there will not be legalised abortion in the North.

News Host

So again is it, I put it to Sinclair McAlister, you don't have to deal with the problem of these hundreds of women who go away to have their abortions, it's not your problem?

Alex Attwood

No it is our problem that women, especially women in vulnerable and traumatic circumstances are choosing the option of abortion and that structures, resources, monies have to be put in place in order to support that each and every woman who is put in those difficult circumstances. That is not passing responsibility, that is assuming responsibility and putting the woman and the child centre-stage in terms of ensuring both, both their welfares.

News Host

Tim Lemon, well a rare degree of consensus, I have to say I agree with al. What's been said today, and the Ulster Unionist Party and myself would be against abortion on demand, but we also feel that that's almost not the question. The question is what should we do to help, particularly young mothers but mothers who find themselves in the situation where they would think of abortion and we have to deal with that. And I think with the Belfast Agreement and with the devolved Assembly we have at Stormont it is now our responsibility and we must tackle the situation and we must deal with it. I certainly can give people the assurance that Ulster Unionist Party realises our responsibility. I'm 31 and this is the first time we've had a serious devolved government in my lifetime, this is one of the, one of the problems we must face and we must do something about it. And I'm glad there's a degree of consensus among the parties here, that it is our problem and we must do something about it.

News Host

That's nice but very vague, what would you do, would you allow, if the law were to be changed would you be happy, would your party be prepared, as a party in government to fund abortion centres in Northern Ireland?

Tim Lemon

No we would not be happy, no.

News Host

So you just wouldn't do it, so women would still have to go away?

Tim Lemon

We wouldn't do it but what we're also saying, I think what everybody else is saying here, it's not enough just to say we're not going to do it, we have to do other things and we're going to work within the Assembly.

News Host

Make it so that all children were wanted?

Tim Lemon

Absolutely, absolutely. News Host Pregnancies, but they will continue to happen and women in their droves are at the moment forced to go away?

Tim Lemon

They are forced to go away. We just not accept something which we feel is immoral and wrong, we must put something else in its place to ensure that those people feel cared for, they feel that the state and the local community is helping them by, I mean St Clair talked about extra tax, we must make sure there's something else in the place other than abortion.

News Host

What do you think, for example, Joe O'Donnell with this ship which is going to be moored outside territorial waters in Dublin and it's going to be a place where women who need an abortion can go and have it if, if they desire?

Joe O'Donnell

A part of our policy and I've outlined the reasons why we think that there shouldn't be a case for abortion. But there are circumstances and as I said at the very start it's a very complex and sensitive issue. For example in the case where a woman's life is at risk, her mental health, her physical health is at risk.

News Host

Abortion on demand, that you're opposed to?

Yes so I think that's an important issue to get across, that people need to be aware of that. But also, I mean I don't think anybody's very clear of what this ship is actually about to do. I mean that what it's set out to do is be a shopping centre for abortion? But I don't think it's very helpful and I don't think that sailing round the world, parking a ship in various countries and trying to address the issue of abortion like that is the way to go forward, I don't think that's a very progressive way to move forward.

News Host

Okay, I'm not going to give everyone a chance to have the same number of answers to each question otherwise we'll be here all afternoon. So let's, let's move on, another health issue here, this comes from Gerard Quinn, in Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Given the amount of compensation which has been paid and will be paid to farmers for loss of animals due to foot and mouth disease, when do the parties intend paying compensation to haemophiliacs who, says Gerard, are after all human, for infection with the Hepatitis C virus. St Clair McAlister?

St Clair McAlister

Well obviously I understand where the question is coming from and again it's a situation where obviously anybody under the law, if they have been mistreated by a hospital or whatever, a doctor, has recourse through the law to try and seek compensation for whatever's happened to them. In cases where people have had operations that have went wrong etc - and I do feel for anyone who has had problems with that and I certainly think it's a question again of having the right structures in place - to sympathetically look at people's situation and make an evaluation. But they do have redress through the law and obviously if they aren't financially well enough off then there should be legal aid to assist them in carrying out whatever they have to do to try and get some redress. But again in everything we're looking for a level playing field and if people have been mistreated or misused or wrongly advised by government then obviously there should be compensation for them.

News Host

Okay, does anyone have a radically different viewpoint to that?

Alex Attwood

The only comment I would make is that when it comes to, and this is moving beyond this, but where there have been issues of abuse of power or bad advice or improper conduct by an institution of the state, in addition to the individual seeking legal remedy as St Clair outlined, there should be consideration of the model that's now been adopted in the South in relation to certain matters where an assessment panel determines what a group of people are entitled to by way of compensation in terms of the loss, the damage that's come to them arising from some state abuse, hospital abuse or irregularity in public administration. You know there are other models that might be quicker, easier, cheaper and more beneficial to the individual who's been wronged than always going to court and that might be a model that we should apply in various cases in the North.

News Host

Okay, let's move on again, still on the topic of health, Dr Alistair Taggart writes from Belfast, as an arthritis specialist at a Belfast hospital I care for patients with crippling rheumatoid arthritis. What are the parties views on the current situation where the Department of Health at Stormont is currently withholding funding to enable us to treat new patients with the ground-breaking drug. Drugs have which been given to nearly 200,000 patients world-wide and have received a full licence for use in the UK since last summer, Tim Lemon?

Tim Lemon

I'm aware of this issue and certainly the people who suffer from arthritis believe this will give them great relief to them and as your listener has said it's licensed in the UK, it seems to have helped very many people across the world and I would certainly urge the Department of Health to look at this drug and to licence it as soon as possible, yes.

News Host

Okay, Joe O'Donnell?

Joe O'Donnell

I don't think the Department of Health is actually withholding the drug per se, I mean I think the Department of Health is in severe financial straits. I think we have seen the run-down with 30 years of direct rule from London which has destroyed the Health Service in many ways, most of that being with Conservative government in power. So I don't think, as I say, per se the Department of Health is withholding funding, I think it needs to be funded to be able to cope with the demand for this drug and I think it should be available, yes.

News Host

Access to it. Alex Attwood?

Alex Attwood:

Incidentally my mother is waiting for a hip replacement due to arthritis and has been waiting quite some time and I was told only a matter of days ago that because a doctor is now unwell they don't know when the treatment might be scheduled. When the SDLP are elected to Westminster with five or six MPs next week one of the things that we'll be doing is pressing for a radical review of the Barnett formula which is the way the British Exchequer funds the North so that there is additional monies in order to take up arthritis care and the other funding priorities in the North.

News Host

So how many seats are going to get?

Alex Attwood

Five or six.

News Host

Five or six, he's an optimist. Okay, let's move on to education, John from Northern Ireland, that's in Londonderry in the North West of the Province. As a student from a fairly well off family, why do you think I should struggle financially at university? My parents work hard and have done so for 30 years only to be drained by me because the government has not provided an adequate student support system. How would you improve the system so that students like myself do not hinder my parents for the rest of my university life, St Clair McAlister?

St Clair McAlister

Well as a parent that went through that with two children some years ago the grant system was slightly, slightly different. I still had to supplement them quite considerably and my wife used to always complain but lovingly complain that her wages each week were going out, but we were getting a benefit of a good education for our children so we didn't mind. But, and we were fortunate that we were able to do that without any real hardship.

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