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Forty days and forty nights: The return of John Blair's Hunting Bill

Forty days and forty nights is all it took for John Blair MLA to announce in the Assembly that he intends to bring back his prejudiced and divisive anti-hunting bill. This of course did not come as a surprise and is something that Countryside Alliance Ireland expected to happen.

Knowing this would happen, Countryside Alliance Ireland, along with Jim Barrington, former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports, attended the Alliance Party Conference on Saturday 2 March.

It was amazing to see just how little the Party actually know about hunting, with the vast majority of the party members, the Party Leader Naomi Long and their Animal Welfare spokesperson Patrick Brown all stating that we should “speak to John Blair”.

Whilst at the Party Conference we did meet with John Blair, who has not even acknowledged our requests to meet or the letters sent to him to date. At first, he skulked around the other stands before plucking up the courage to come over, and to be fair to him he was pleasant and did give us a reasonable amount of time.

Sadly, however, his prejudice shone through when Jim Barrington asked if he had he read his letter on why he left the League and changed his position on hunting with dogs. Jim also asked if Mr Blair had read the book he also sent him entitled “Rural Wrongs”. He clearly had not and showed no intention of doing so.

So, why has John Blair not yet lodged his Bill with the Speaker's office? The simple answer is not only is the process of Private Members Bills (PMBs) being reviewed by the Speaker, Edwin Poots, following an inquiry into the process by the Committee on Procedures in February 2022, but also with the amount of Executive business there is no capacity for PMBs at the time of writing.

Countryside Alliance Ireland asked Mr Blair why he preferred a PMB and not a Bill lead by the Department of Agriculture Environment & Rural Affairs, as has been suggested by Sinn Fein and Former DAERA Minister Edwin Poots if he wanted his Bill to come back.

While Mr Blair claimed that it wouldn’t get time through DAERA, even though his Party holds the Ministerial position, in truth, we believe that he wants to avoid this at all cost as to go through DAERA would mean having to go through a more open, structured, balanced and evidence based approach.

The reality is Mr Blair not only wants all the glory for his passion project, as acknowledged in Ms Longs leaders’ speech, but a PMB as one MLA put it is “like the wild west” with very little restrictions coupled with such a low threshold to progress you can do what you like, as we saw in the Bill in 2021 that could have criminalised every dog owner in Northern Ireland.

Mr Blair should consider all the challenges facing Northern Ireland voters who will quite rightly be appalled if MLA’s were to start a prolonged battle over hunting with dogs and the political consequences of another defeat.

Should the Bill come back, Countryside Alliance Ireland will defend country sports and hunting rigorously, but we are under no illusions that we will all, as a community, need to stand together to defeat it for a second time.

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