The Westminster Election Hustings Debate In Downpatrick – First Session

The hustings debate between the seven Westminster election candidates for South Down was overshadowed by some brief but controversial comments from DUP candidate Jim Wells MLA. The link for this Down News report can be found below.

This article focuses on extracts from the candidates on the other key bread and butter issues posed in questions from the audience.

[caption id="attachment_56192" align="aligncenter" width="540"]The candidates in the South Down hustings debate in the St Patrick Centre with chairman Paul Symington. The candidates in the South Down hustings debate in the St Patrick Centre with chairman Paul Symington.[/caption]

First up was Eamonn McGrady, chair of the Down Community Health Committee. He asked: “20,000 constituents walked on the biggest show of support for the Downe Hospital yet in a recent march and rally. How do you intent to restore the 24-hour A&E service, coronary care and the beds that have been removed.”

[caption id="attachment_56155" align="alignright" width="300"]Jim Wells MLA and NI Health MInister responds to the question on gay marriage being passed in law in Northern Ireland. Jim Wells MLA and NI Health MInister responds to the question on gay marriage being passed in law in Northern Ireland.[/caption]

Jim Wells MLA (DUP) and NI Health Minister said: “This is nothing to do with budgets. We simply cannot get the staff to do it. We have had many attempts and we are struggling in the smaller hospitals. If we can’t get staff and the law says we can’t  open as we have insufficient consultants, that is the difficulty we find ourselves in.

“We are struggling to fill the posts. We are recruiting 8p nurses, 51 consultants and middle grade doctors – and we just can’t fill posts for neurologists… the perception is that we are not doing enough. There are more people going through the doors of the Downe Hospital than in its history. You need a population of 400,000 to sustain an acute hospital.”

Margaret Ritchie MP (SDLP): “We were told that we would receive an enhanced hospital in Downpatrick – equity of access to services and free delivery at the point of use, that is what we  need now… we need to be active in the House of Commons to get a better budget for Northern Ireland and a better block grant which means more for our health system which takes up 46% of our budget.

“And the SDLP have written to the Home Secretary to relax the rules so we can take in Indian dioctors. This would help a lot in filling the gaps in the shortage of medical staff.”

[caption id="attachment_56185" align="alignleft" width="260"]Henry Reilly (UKIP). Henry Reilly (UKIP).[/caption]

Henry Reilly (UKIP): “The Downe Community Health Committee have done a great job in getting our new hospital but no matter what we do we are largely dictated to by the EU. Cameron said he would restrict immigration. 300,000 have come into the EU this year from south and eastern Europe… as a result we are now not getting teh skilled people we need. Jim Wells could bring a lot of services to relocate to the Downe Hospital but only when we finally get out of Europe will we be able to sort our these issues properly.”

Chris Hazzard MLA (SinnFéin): “It was our Health MInister Barbre de Brun who signed off the new Downe Hospital and what we need to do now is a Health MInister who will stand up to the officials in his own department and show commitment. There is a choice – it has nothing to do with budgets. Jim Wells is right on that. He cannot make a decision against the centralist bureaucrats. Five of the directors of the Trust’s are being paid more than Barak Obama! We need to see more leadership from our Health Minister Jim Wells to bring services back to the Downe Hospital.”

Martyn Todd (Alliance): “I commend Eamonn McGrady on his question. Margaret Ritchie is right, we can only argue for more money for Northern Ireland in the block grant… as far as getting middle grade doctors and consultants to come and work in the Downe Hospital is concerned, I would  have put in their job contracts an indication that if they wanted promotion, they need to do this for their career progression.”

[caption id="attachment_56190" align="alignright" width="260"]Margaret Ritchie (SDLP). Margaret Ritchie (SDLP).[/caption]

Harold McKee (UUP): It is sad to see a £65million hospital all but closed after 8pm. It is like a ghost town. I had occasion to go there with someone is a very distressed state and had to go on to Craigavon Hospital. Many people take their own lives and someone in this position needs to be seen 24/7. We have the facilities but not the services. If elected, I would do what I can to get the funding we need to get our services functioning – everyone is entitled to the right to health.”

Felicity Buchan (Conservative): “I believe that 42% of the health fund on managerial costs is inefficient and should be dispersed into paying dioctors and nurses. If this wa sdone we woudl have a better facility in the Downe Hospital. The Conservative led government is providing sufficient funding – what we need now is efficient government in Northern Ireland providing efficient health services.”


Moira Magee asked the panel: “What will the panel do to improve training and opportunities for young people aged 18-25?

Margaret Ritchie (SDLP): “We certainly need adult job opportunities in South Down. DETI has not been providing this. I have been pushing for more job creation in our area and we need our colleges working closely with DET and DEL and work with the academic and vocational students.”

[caption id="attachment_56188" align="alignleft" width="250"]Chris Hazzard (Sinn Féin). Chris Hazzard (Sinn Féin).[/caption]

Chris Hazzard (Sinn Féin): “South Down has been neglected fro decades… last year Newry and Mourne District Council area created 1500 jobs whilst Down District only created a handful. For too long South Down has been creating a generation of civil servants who work in Belfast. What we need now is enterprise. We need to see young people getting qualifications. Our county town is on its knees. The Sinn Féin Fisheries Minister has has made a welcome boost and relocated the Fisheries Office to Downpatrick and this will be 60 jobs now in this area.”

Martyn Todd (Alliance): “We need small businesses delivering for South Down. We need skilled people to do that. From my own personal friends circle, five families who have 18 children have seen 15 working out of this area. They have 15 masters degrees, two PhD’s. We don’t have a sound economy here. There is great potential in South Down for tourism. We have 10% of the land of Northern Ireland and a third of the heritage assets. It is my ambition to see the St Patrick Centre and the St PAtrick heritage theme expand. With proper cooperation and involving stakeholders we can create jobs for young people.”

Harold McKee (UUP): “It is basically important to get young people away from TV. In KIlkeel, B/E Aerospace is doing great helping young people into employment. When they get into employment they should be at least paid a minimum wage. Many young people don’t have jobs and we need more funding to assist these people. A percentage of young people should be finding opportunities in business so they they feel wanted and part of society.”

[caption id="attachment_56189" align="alignright" width="250"]Felicity Buchan (Conservative). Felicity Buchan (Conservative).[/caption]

Felicity Buchan (Conservative): Long-term unemplayment is the scourge of our society. Over the past parliament the CInservatives created 1.5 million jobs. Unemployment in the past year has continued to fall. We really need more jobs in Northern Ireland. For that we need a bigger private sector economy. We need to encourage the business sector to grow. It is therefore important for Northern Ireland to be able to set its own Corporation Tax. WE have everything going for ourselves here so let’s create a great tourist economy.”

Henry Reilly (UKIP): “I would scrap zero hour contracts. And quite often the government gets in the way of people who create jobs. We are restricted by the Sinn Féin/DUP cabal at Stormont.  We need to move from the idea of minimum wage to a higher level. But we face issue swith the influx of immigrants into the country – the labour market needs to be matched to the work available.

Jim Wells (DUP): ” “The crash in the building trade has caused serious issues with training and jobs for young people… many people are now no longer prepared to do jobs that people would have done 20 years ago. There are now families who have a Social Security budget of £32,000 a year. We must have a cap on these benefits. Many people are not prepared to take up the option of work.”


Peter Surginor asked the panel: “With equal marriage in place in the rest of the UK, is it time for Northern Ireland to follow suit?

[caption id="attachment_56187" align="alignleft" width="260"]Harold McKee (UUP) Harold McKee (UUP)[/caption]

Henry Reilly (UKIP): “UKIP did not oppose legislation on the civil partnership but does oppose gay marriage. Marriage is a Christian sacrament, it is about the bonding of a man and woman, about making a family. That’s what I believe.”

Felicity Buchan (Conservative): “In England there is an option in England for individual churches to opt out of this because of conscience. The Conservatives allowed a free vote on this in the Commons. The majority did vote in favour of the opt out option and I voted in favour of gay marriage… if marriage were just for procreation would this prevent a 55-year old woman from marrying?”

Chris Hazzard (Sinn Féin): “I am proud to say that Sinn Féin is bringing gay marriage forward to a vote in the Assembly. Henry Reilly is wrong – this is simply a matter of equality. The DUP and UKIP are going to try and turn the clock back on these islands.”

Martyn Todd (Alliance): “The Alliance Party is in favour of equal civil marriage – this is purely a matter of equality. Even in my lifetime, the concept of marriage has evolved. So I am in support of the question posed… I have a friend in New York who explained to me that this is damaging the image of Northern Ireland internationally and holding up inward investment… it is true that over 400 other species show gay behaviour. “

Jim Wells (DUP): “You don’t bring a child up in a homosexual relationship. That child is far more likely to be abused and neglected…” There was a strong reaction from the audience at this point.

[caption id="attachment_56191" align="alignright" width="260"]Martyn Todd (Alliance). Martyn Todd (Alliance).[/caption]

Margaret Ritchie (SDLP): “We in the SDLP are all committed to  social justice and equality in our society. And we also seek to respect the rights of those who are Christians. Everybody must show compassion in these matters.”

Harold McKee (UUP): “I am a Christian and I believe God created man and woman. I am the father of three adopted children and they need to know they have a mother and  father.”


Clare Calvert asked the panel: “What would you do to convince students to come back to study and take up STEM subjects?”

Chris Hazzard (Sinn Féin): “We need to restore the benefit to our economy first. We need to grow local tourism and our private sector… our economy is just 3% of the UK economy. And we don’t have our own hands on fiscal powers so it is difficult to create a conducive environment for students unless the building blocks are in place…

“Basically in Westminster Early Day motions are not important.

Martyn Todd (Alliance): “We need this a more confident society. All the politicians should be about coopertion otherwise policies wont work in Northern Ireland. Arts are being hit the hardest. We do need this sector as  it is very important

Felicity Buchan (Conservative): “The Conservatives are all about improving the standards in schools and in education and to increase the opportunities for the population. We do have a good educational standard here but the question is how do we keep our good talented people here? We must leave the sectarian politics of the past behind and move on. We can all have a job and be happy.

“And it would be a disaster to pull out of the RU. In 2017 there will likely be a referendum to see if we stay in the RU and there will be a free vote in the Conservatives on this. We are not going to make unfair cuts in welfare – we will incentivise people to work and the disabled will be protected by a safety net. Nit taking up a seat if elected sends out a message of disrespect to the people o fSouth Down. How you get influence at Westminster is by voting for a national party and for someone who can deliver.

Henry Reilly (UKIP): “Thousands of young people do need to come back to Northern Ireland and bring their skills back with them. It is good for them to broaden their horizons. We must now commit and get the tourism ball rolling to create jobs for our young people. My own daughter is heading off to the United States and my son is in Australia. I would like to see them come back to full-time jobs.”

Margaret Ritchie (SDLP): “The budget for Northern Ireland is debated on the floor of the Commons and we are not responsible to Downing Street. I stand by my record at Westminster – I spend three days a week there, and work 17 hours a day seven days a week.

“We need to build a shared society that we all need. We need to find out what other economic levers there are at Westminster to pull. But we need to be in there to achieve this. There will be a hung parliament and it is important therefore to take your seat and participate in the debate on the floor of the Commons and create a framework for Northern Ireland for the long-term. We need a comprehensive spending review.

“We need to create new possibilities for jobs in South Down for the young. We have been ribbed by the Sinn Féin / DUP partnership.”