by Countryside Alliance

Rural campaigners have accused John Blair MLA of potentially ‘misleading’ Stormont over alleged support for a ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland, after his party’s latest petition failed to match anywhere near the number of signatories to his private members consultation on the same issue.

In December MLAs voted against Mr. Blair’s bill, which would have outlawed hunting with hounds. The bill attracted significant opposition from countryside groups who argued it was “dangerous”, as it risked making all dog owners potential criminals in the event of a dog chasing a wild mammal.

Mr Blair, a South Antrim MLA, said he hoped to reintroduce the legislation as soon as possible in the next assembly mandate.

 The Alliance Party e-petition, which was due to close at midnight on the 10th January, was created shortly after the substantial defeat of the hunting bill in early December. It called on the public to sign up, to show ‘support for a ban on all hunting of wild mammals with dogs’.  

It was shared through social media and other official Alliance Party channels, with an aim of creating momentum following the high profile debate which had ensued Stormont only weeks before.

But rural groups have drawn attention to the fact that five times less people have signed this latest petition than the 18,425 people that signed John Blair’s own private members consultation on the same issue, last year.

At the time of its publication, Mr Blair heralded the ‘phenomenal’ outcome, which allegedly found some 78% of respondents supporting a ban. At the time, Countryside Alliance Ireland questioned what steps had been put in place to ensure that only respondents from Northern Ireland had been included in the final result. The consultation also provoked controversy after claiming a potential ban enjoyed the ‘strong support of the farming community’. In an open letter, the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU)- Northern Ireland’s biggest farming union- questioned how such ‘a statement could be made’, given the group had had no previous engagement on the subject with Mr Blair.

Gary McCartney, Director of Countryside Alliance Ireland said: “ It is clear that there is no interest in yet another debate about the future of hunting with hounds in Northern Ireland. The Alliance’s Party’s petition does ,however, provoke serious questions for Mr. Blair who prior to submitting his divisive anti- hunting bill, claimed he had the support of 78% of the people. That consultation was flawed and relied on signatures from across the globe.

“It was totally wrong for Mr. Blair to spin that figure as being representative of Northern Ireland and it would seem he potentially misled Stormont, especially when he failed to verify the identity of those taking part.

“This latest petition from the Alliance Party, which has also hoovered up signatures of support from outside Northern Ireland, needs to serve as a reality check: there is no political capital to be gained from attacking Northern Ireland’s hunting community. The Alliance Party, and any MLA supporting their divisive, anti- rural stance, should focus their efforts on pursuing issues which actually matter to people living in the countryside.”

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