As promised, here's a live blog of tonight's Question Time:
22:36: The show starts. David Dimbleby points out the show isn't just about Northern Irish politics. Presuambly the ratings normally dive for a show from there.
22:37: The Litvinenko poisoning and whether or not it's connected to the murder of a Russian journalist. It's an important issue but so far not one of controversy amongst the panelists. Peter Hain gets asked directly about whether his "a distinctly murky murder" comment was pointing to the Kremlin. There's strong support for ensuring Russia guarentees human rights. Trimble is suggesting that under Putin Russia is re-establishing its old sphere of influence across neighbouring countries. Can the rest of Europe sit back? He seems to be suggesting that Russia should be encouraged into the European Union.
Continuing at 22:44: And very quickly someone's linked it to the situation in Northern Ireland, comparing democracy in Russia to direct rule in Northern Ireland. At least the Russians get to have elections for governing bodies that aren't suspended by external forces. And someone else causes McGuinness a hypocrite and now Jeffrey Donaldson jumps in with a comparison to spy scandals. Does no-one in Northern Irish politics understand why Question Time tries to stay away as much as possible? Martin McGuinness responds to the hypocrisy charge by pointing out how many have voted for his party. The person who called him a hypocrite says she comes from "West Belfast" - is she a nationalist or unionist? (The Shankill is very much West Belfast - indeed that was the name of the Pals regiments from there.)
Continuing at 22:48: Mark Durkan finally gets to speak and starts with Russia. He calls for firmer pressure to brought on the country but points out that it has vast sources of energy that could be held hostage. Clearly that's going to take more than just telling Putin to stick to kissing children. Meanwhile the last audience member gets in a comment about the NHS failing Litvinenko.
22:52: The new law against homophobia is taking effect in Northern Ireland first. Jeffrey Donaldson tries to play the card that this is an attack on Christians. As a Christian I am sick to death of people trying to justify their right to express and pursue hatred in the name of their faith. It's not about "having a different opinion" it's about pushing hatred in the name of different opinion. The only point I agree with on is that Northern Ireland shouldn't be a test for the law - it should take effect everywhere at the same time. Mark Durkan is far more sensible that bed and breakfasts sould be there to be guests for all. Some idiot in the audience claims Christianity is anti-gay. He should go and reread his Bible. Peter Hain reminds us of the era of guest houses with "No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish" signs. For once I find myself fiercely nodding with him.
Continuing at 22:56: And now we seem to have someone from Fathers for Justice in the audience. I bet Antonia is fuming.
Continuing at 22:57: A woman from Lagan Valley (Donaldson's seat) states how disgusted she is with her MP. Good on her! David Trimble makes the point I just did - that this should be the same throughout the United Kingdom. Dimbleby makes the interesting point that the Cabinet is divided but Peter Hain has the power to drive this through in Northern Ireland. Peter Hain is trying to hide Ruth Kelly's widely known opposition to equality. Donaldson tries to claim this is not about bigotry. What next Jeffrey? "No Catholics"? I find myself agreeing heaving with Martin McGuinness's point that if you offer a service to the public it must be open to all the public.
23:02: Is the peace process being rushed due to Blair's impending departure and desire for a legacy? Well since when has four years been a rush? Now for some fireworks... Trimble suggests the DUP and Sinn Fein have no real opposition to the basic agreement but are just dragging their heels. (And incidentally one bonus for the parties is that Peter Hain can impose anything harsh on the province that's needed whilst the local parties can escape blame for what they would have o do if they'd had responsibility anyway.) I'm sure someone is going to pick up on McGuinness's criticism of the loyalist terrorist as someone "who still thinks it's acceptable to kill people" for a political cause. Everyone seems to want speed and blame someone else for the delay. And apparently Ian Paisley was invited for the panel but refused to sit on the same panel as Matin McGuinness. That's going to be interesting when they're the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Perhaps the Alliance Party can once more fulfil its role of providing neutral politicians and take on the role of official messenger. Someone in the audience tries to move the debate onto rates and water charges. Peter Hain rattles off some statistics to try to make the charges look fair. He seems confident about a restoration about devolution. Meanwhile an audience member asks about the shared community - but votes for cross community candidates are currently plumetting (unless they're single issue save the hospital candidates). Trimble makes the telling point - the DUP have basically accepted all the principles of the agreement that they bitterly denounced since 1998 (something Donaldson is not in a position to easily argue against, having been a fair weather friend of the DUP). Durkan sounds like the main voice of reason at the moment.
23:16: Is it right for Blair to apologise for slavery but not the Iraq War? From recollection the parties split down the Unionist-Nationalist divide at the time on this one - indeed the Unionist Parties seemed the most united in the UK on the war. Naturally McGuinness agrees there should be an apology, whilst Trimble thinks the slavery apology was wrong as the UK not only stopped the trade in its own jurisdiction but arbitarily enforced the ban on other countries. Donaldson and Trimble are "for once" in complete agreement, thinking it's good Saddam Hussein has gone. I'm not so sure that the end chapter on the Iraq War has been written yet and we could yet get a new strong man in power, maybe pushing active fundamentalism. Otherwise the discussion frankly feels like a rerun of the arguments of the last four years, with the same people taking the same positions each time. As for slavery, I'm not sure what I think. Can an apology for an act of history, that occurred centuries ago, actually have any real meaning? Today's government and Parliament contains not one person who was alive at the time of the slave trade.
23:27: Is Charles Clarke right about Trident? The panel was discussing the dangers of Russia drifting back towards its old position earlier! A nuclear deterrent is essential in an era when there are many potentially unstable states in the world. We cannot ensure that we will not face rogue countries with nuclear weapons when we have none. Unilateral disarmament would be madness. Is it any real surprise that an ex Home Secretary wants the money spent on threats the Home Office rather than the MoD normally handles? Finally Donaldson says something I strongly agree with when he makes the same point. Peter Hain is trying to take the credit for the forthcoming vote in Parliament and standing up for democracy rather than a firm position on whether or not he agrees with it.
23:34: If you could paint a slogan on Stormont what would it be? Some slightly humourous responses, although the sentiments are very predictable.
On the whole this was one of the better editions from Northern Ireland - Dimbleby didn't have to read the riot act this time. But as ever there was too often an attempt to drag international issues back to local affairs.