UTV Leaders Debate; Party Leaders Play It Safe

The five leaders of Stormonts main parties gathered at the Lyric Theatre for the first debate of the 2016 assembly election.

Three weeks out from polling day the party leaders are keen not to make mistakes and it showed tonight. All five seemed to have a conservative approach with few direct engagements between leaders and few interruptions.

Moderator Marc Mallett asked questions on the Fresh Start Agreement, Economy, Education, Health and Abortion rights.

The first segment invited leaders to make their direct pitches to voters. Colum Eastwood (who had the strongest opener in my view) spoke about being the newest face on the stage which represented a new SDLP with a desire for change. He argued that this election was a chance look beyond the past and that voters cannot be expected to remain greatful for parties simply remaining in government.

David Ford opened up by telling people he shared their frustration with Stormont, but if people really wanted change, they needed to vote for it and not put up with what he called slow moving politics. He pledged no more pausing and no more rewinding.

Arlene Foster (who had the weakest opener in my view) spoke of her desire to get things done and her five point plan to achieve more for Northern Ireland. She made her pitch very personal saying if voters elected her as First Minister we could build a stronger Northern Ireland and she ended by encouraging you to vote for her DUP candidates.

Martin McGuinness’ pitch focused on defending the Fresh Start Agreement which he argued was a better approach for devolution. He argued that this was the time for positive, experienced and responsible leadership that could work for the future.

Mike Nesbitt was the last leader up; he argued that this election was about change vs. more of the same. Like Eastwood, he made the pitch that the UUP had changed and renewed under his leadership and was ready to lead again and make Stormont work.

Fresh Start Agreement/Devolution

This segment focused on pitting the DUP and Sinn Fein’s record against the charge from the DUP and UUP that the last 9 years had been littered with failure.

Foster began making her pitch on the importance of the DUP holding the First Minister’s post, telling viewers about the symbolic importance of that office and the more influence that the largest party has around the Executive table. Despite being probed by Mallet about Sinn Fein becoming the largest party, she refused to deal hypotheticals.

Eastwood and McGuinness did have a brief encounter with one another over the Fresh Start Agreement as the Deputy First Minister accused the SDLP of not showing leadership on the issue and had that agreement not been signed, Northern Ireland would now be under Direct Rule. Eastwood argued that people need to stop being asked to feel greatful just for the symbolism of parties being in government.

Abortion

This segment was as indicative of any of the conservative approach that party leaders had taken to this debate.

Viewers heard about David Ford bringing measures before the Assembly to deal with abortions in cases of Fatal Foetal Abnormality. Colum Eastwood reiterated the SDLP’s pro-life stance, but slightly nuanced this by emphasising his belief that the case last week should be dealt with compassion from society and he wasn’t sure that the prosecution was in the public interest. Foster made similar pitch for compassion, but stressed the DUP’s pro-life credentials. Martin McGuinness challenged the characterisation of Sinn Fein as a pro-choice party, but did say that they supported some reforms of the law. He stressed the case of Sarah Ewart and argued that some parties had let people like her down over the issue of abortion guidelines.

Out of all the leaders for me, Mike Nesbitt had the strongest platform, coming out decisively against last week’s prosecution, viewing it as unfair and clearly stated his support for a change in the law regarding Fatal Foetal Abnormality.

Education

This segment really pitted Sinn Fein against the SDLP with some exchanges over Sinn Fein’s record in handling this job over the past 9 years. McGuinness highlighted that under the party’s tenure in education the number of students getting 5 good GCSE’s had increased and noted comments about the strength of our local system. McGuinness argued that the ultimate situation he would like to get to would be a Finnish model of education with no selection.

Eastwood responded arguing that McGuinness had not really abolished the 11 plus as students are now sitting 3 and 4 exams today. He argued that under the SDLP, selection would go for good and that too many of our students are failing in the current system. The SDLP leader set out his stall for a new digital academy and making maths compulsory until the age of 18. McGuinness hit back at Eastwood arguing that it was the Grammar Schools, not the government who were testing children at 11 and urged the practice to stop.

Economy

In this segment, Eastwood spelt out SDLP plans to make prioritise investment in areas that have been left behind traditionally. He spelt out plans to reduce fees, reverse cuts in higher education and invest in skills using Barnett Consequential that he says come to around £220 million. Foster contradicted the SDLP leader’s claims about investment outside of Belfast noting that nearly 10,000 new jobs have been created in the West and pointedly accused others of talking Northern Ireland down.

Probably the most interesting part of the segment was McGuinness’ strong statement on the devolution of Corporation Tax saying that he was as resolute as Arlene Foster in seeing this reform happen. He highlighted economic successes of the last Executive noting that more Foreign Direct Investment has been achieved that at any time in the history of Northern Ireland which has resulted in a steady decline unemployment.

Nesbitt highlighted the importance of getting people who are suffering from poor mental health active in our economic life which will help our society as a whole. His pitch chimed with Eastwoods as he argued that under the last recession Northern Ireland was better protected than any other region but we are still lagging behind other UK regions and the Irish Republic in terms of economic growth.

OVERALL

I found this debate to be conservative, lacking in any real encounters between the leaders and overall it was a play it safe approach. Three weeks out from polling day, none of the leaders want to make a mistake which is grand. No leader will have lost a vote tonight, but I doubt if any of them will have picked up many either.

Marc Mallett did a good job at hosting, but at the next BBC debate, there will need to more encounters to show that there are some clear differences and energy in parties.

  • Pasty2012

    Arlene should have pointed out that the DUP have ensured that British Austerity Cuts were assured for British people in the North as they fought Sinn Fein to ensure the cuts have and will be implemented in the coming years. The PUL people need to vote DUP to ensure that they continue to play their part in repaying the Debt run up by the bankers in London through lower Benefits. A Vote for the DUP will ensure that those pesky Republicans in Sinn Fein won’t be able to stop further benefit cuts for the Loyalist People in the North. Vote DUP and your benefit cuts will come!!!

  • Reader

    Pasty2012: Vote DUP and your benefit cuts will come!!!
    Or vote SF and jobs and services will be cut instead.
    Really though, there isn’t an effective difference, as the actual result is going to be a messy, wasteful compromise anyway.

  • Gingray

    Mallet was an appalling moderator, he spend too much time talking, did we really need to know 3 times that the utv website had a full list of candidates? And forgetting Marty at the ad break. Doh. Those ads didn’t help to be fair, but question about movie star to play them was woeful.

    Nesbitt did really well, handled most things competently, rank him best.

    Eastwood likewise seemed competent, sidelined a bit, but great health answer.

    Ford did grand, came across as the moderate voice in at all, good focus on skills.

    McGuinness was quite poor, particularly given his experience. 11 plus flummoxed him a tad, tho it was fun watching Arlenes reaction each time he talked up the close working they do.

    Foster was abysmal – media hype seems to have led to her claiming credit for the entire dup plan. She stumbled and looked ill at ease. At her best when speaking about the successes. Worst performer.

  • Gingray

    David

    ‘Foster contradicted the SDLP leader’s claims about investment outside of Belfast noting that nearly 10,000 new jobs have been created in the West ‘

    Sorry, did she not say that 78% of jobs created where outside Belfast? Which would include Lisburn, Ballymena, Bangor, Newry and Antrim, none of which are in the West?

  • Granni Trixie

    What I find fascinating is that I had different perceptions of what was going on as a member of the audience and as someone watching the debate later on TV. For example in the Lyric earlier I thought Eastwood came across really well – as compared to his predecessor , mind you. Then at home later seeing him on TV he seemed to lack authority/experience. Anyway I on,y use this to share a learning experience which brings home to me at least that Leaders must learn how to present/project their personalities on TV in the battle for votes. Tonight nobody made a glaring mistake (I expect they were cautious and now relieved) but projecting their personalities will be a step up. And ofcourse my hero DF ticked all th boxes ( but then I would….).

    As regards the content of what the leaders said,commentators seem to have overlooked that Arlene avoided emphasising the DUP line “vote for us to keep Sf out as FM”. This could be because of the cordial dynamics prevailing in the Lyric (and I wouldn’t underestimate this) or because the strategy of ‘vote for us to keep themuns out’ is not playing out as they expected.

  • mac tire

    A very poor debate and I don’t blame the politicians.

    BBC and RTE do these things much better – chasing up unanswered questions, harrying.

    Generally, BBC and RTE have more of a type of “answer the question, please.” type presenter. UTV’s tonight was more a case of “Thanks for replying to the question.”

    Disappointing.

  • Brendan Heading

    A bizarre contribution that is probably someone’s ham fisted idea of satire. Austerity/benefit cuts could not be stopped if Sinn Féin occupied every seat in the Assembly.

  • mickfealty

    You are onto something. Aesthetics do matter hugely.

    I thought UTV quietly passed him the winners badge in part because expectations of the SDLP are soooo low. But, and I’m really not playing the man here, but even on the Telly where the ‘dance of youth’ was more obvious and distracting than in Lyric, he made Martin look old, confused and slow.

    As for Unionism I suspect the sell by date on “the keep SF out’ line is coming faster by the day. It’s less and less an issue for Unionists. Ken Reid’s comments (I think it was Ken) afterwards on the retrenching re the education portfolio were enlightening.

    If there is public pressure anywhere in post violence NI it is in education. What if the DUP was to go for Education first? Would SF really go for Finance next? It’s not really a role very well suited to serial oppositionists. And yet, if they refuse it they will certainly lose face.

    If a DUP pragmatist is given the role you won’t see their feet for the dust. Nothing, literally nothing has happened under a SF watch on education since 1999. There’s dozens of compromises out there waiting to be cut that would just take the pressure off education.

  • mickfealty

    She was, certainly at the beginning. This Arlene mantle the DUP have put on her could become a straight-jacket.

    But the Demi Moore thing at the end (if it had any purpose at all) demonstrated she’s different quantity than we’ve had to contemplate from the DUP before.

    She still has spirit, and relative youth. I would not be writing her off just yet.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Could also point out 83% of the population live outside Belfast anyway.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Your auto-text made the word predecessor become processor.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Leader’s Debates are silly concepts for an election of a parliament.

    Get the party spokespeople in a room for a particular issue and focus on that issue for an entire campaign. 9 Days, 9 Departments, 9 debates for each department, including the leaders debate on The Department of Executive policies, North/South, East/West and all the FPP stuff (Flags, Parading, Past) if it comes up.

    Statements from spokespeople for the smaller parties then mentioned after.

  • kensei

    You don’t half come off with some shite Mick. There is zero chance of SF passing on Finance in any circumstance.

    Nothing has happened in Education because SFs preferred policies are all blocked by the DUP. If the DUP take education and try anything remotely controversial, like the vast majority of stuff in their manifesto, they’ll find themselves blocked by SF. I’m also not sure “nothing” is worse than the churn Labour and the Tories have imposed on England’s education system.

    I think it’s bad for the ministries to be so static in any case. I think there should be an enforced reshuffle mid term. Or at maybe a change so that while the number of ministries might be fixed, the FM / DFM get to Negotiate their preferred team.

  • mickfealty

    Call me naive, if you like… but what’s the actual worst thing that could happen in handing SF Finance?

  • Actually austerity can be countered by increased local taxes, especially rates, and any other tax raising powers. There are English councils that could avoid cuts by a 5 to 8% increase in council tax. But that needs a referendum, as it is above the central government sanctioned 4%.

  • So when will the much more interesting debate between smaller parties be broadcast?

  • mickfealty

    Thursday.

  • Lionel Hutz

    The DUP will never pass up finance for what would be a lame duck education minister. Giving the impression that they might take education….that’s another matter

  • Lionel Hutz

    I think on TV you can more clearly see when people nervous even if they’re good at hiding it. Close ups of the eyes. Eastwood was definitely nervous. But these debates are probably more important for him than any of the other four. When Foster took over, she immediately stepped into the most prominent position in politics here so it’s no surprise she has been able to make more of an immediate impact than Eastwood. This kind of exposure is something he needs.

    I agree with those who have said Foster was very poor. But then I always think she comes across poorly on TV interviews and debates. She comes across better in the assembly chamber.

    Mike Nesbitt was definitely marking himself out as somewhat more liberal than the other four. It gives him some space but I don’t know if that’s fertile ground for the UUP…..

    Martin McGuinness and David Ford didn’t really stand out for me. Particularly McGuinness was poor.

    I’m not gonna rank Eastwood in the order performances because I’m biased. But the other four id say

    1. Nesbitt
    2. Ford
    3. McGuinness
    4. Foster.

    I do think Eastwood would be top but mostly because he needs these debates most and he has done what he needs to do

  • Granni Trixie

    I’m not a DUP fan (duh) but I really don’t agree with you about Arlene Foster. As ever she at least sounded authentic and I can see her getting better and better. I would wager a bet that she is getting some sort of presentation advice but if she goes overboard on this she could lose the advantage of being a distinctive personality.

    Yes, last night she fluffed her lines for a minute or two at the start, through nervousness obviously, but she soon recovered. I also noted that she was the only one to make much use of hand gestures. And though I can see why you liked Nesbitts performance if one does not trust what he says usually then he is a turn off whatever image he tries to promote. As regards him setting out a liberal image last night, I have noticed for some time that he seems to be trying to condition UUP members/supporters for a more liberal perspective. Obviously he will
    find resistance from within.

  • Granni Trixie

    OMG! Thanks Kevin.

  • On the fence!

    ………….or because they know full well that’s what people (on both sides) will do anyway, and harping on about it will only give the media and opposition a stick to beat them with.

  • Granni Trixie

    Bear in mind Mick that the static format of the programme never lent itself to a dynamic, lively programme. There was no interaction with audience hence no googley balls to field but instead they had to answer a set of questions on predictable key areas, one after each other. They also did not ring the changes with a ‘commentators corner’ (later on in the evening, yes).
    Leaders were also standing and facing the presenter ,not each other.

    On one hand the exercise worked as a setting out your stall exercise on the other the dull format may have been a turn off to general public and non voters in particular. That said, it did engage an anoraks like myself.

  • Gingray

    The advice seems to be around what to say, putting the focus on her. So its her 5 point plan, her party, her decisions. Made her look a bit isolated.

  • Granni Trixie

    I wonder is there a gender thing goes on regarding Arlenes performance generally:
    I have no doubt whatsoever that she has the personality and education to do well as a party leader – just a pity she’s in the wrong party.

  • Gingray

    Not a thing practically, but as Arlene said last night, it is about symbology. For some unionists, SF with Finance looks like they have the power.

    However both parties have been sniffing around for the Economy department and the good news stories it will bring.

    If they agree a PfG before hand, then Finance has no real benefit, and so I believe economy will be picked first or second, rather than education.

  • Gingray

    Just interesting that David misquoted her!

    After his recent comment about the SDLP “venturing” West of the Bann, I am beginning to think he assumes everything outside of Belfast is the “West”.

  • Gingray

    Writing her off? Not at all, she is still one of the more competent Ministers we have had. The problem is the party and media have built her up to be something she is not, and I think the public are well aware of this.

    Given that her best moment was a prepared line she has used before relating to fluff, rather than anything over policy, that is not saying much.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    “Nothing has happened in Education because SFs preferred policies are all blocked by the DUP.”

    No, it’s because SF are such poor ministers that they removed the existing 11+ system without having an agreed replacement ready to be put in place. This is incompetence in planning and management abilities.

  • Granni Trixie

    As an aside, I was partly distracted at the Lyric when the make up woman with a big bag of makeup came round at advert breaks to each of the Leaders and presenter. She seemed to use the same big powder puff thingy and a brush to mop up sweat and shine off their faces (and in some cases heads, guess who). I kept thinking of the circulating germs going from face to face. In context it would not have been a good look should anyone have said “thank you but I want a clean tissue to mop up my sweat thank you very much” . Still I squirmed for them in their helplessness – And as Stephen Nolan would say, pass the boke bag.

  • Msiegnaro

    A United Ireland 😉

  • Granni Trixie

    Eastwood was the last in line to get the treatment! All those germs! Hope he’s feeling ok today….

  • kensei

    In theory, the mutual veto limits room. But Finance cuts across other departments and gives whoever has it a little bit more leverage in negotiations and a little bit more opportunity to annoy outside it.

    There was talk the DUP might make education their first pick last time. They took finance.

  • Kevin Breslin

    In many cases, it pretty much is.

  • Gingray

    You really think Newry, Lisburn, Derry, Bangor and Enniskillen should be lumped in together?

  • the rich get richer

    Were they all ‘Tarred with the Same Brush “

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well it’s not that ridiculous an idea, usually “West of the Bann”, is the lower populated area as Antrim and Down have clearly more than the majority population of the North.

    To really compare like with like in terms of Geography you could probably focus on the 9 constituencies that have any part of themselves “West of Bann”, as West of the Bann i.e. Foyle, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone, Fermanagh-South Tyrone, East Londonderry/East Derry, Newry & Armagh, Upper Bann and South Down and maybe North Antrim?

  • Gingray

    I tend to find the culchies very different however, with different needs. Derry City v Fermanagh/Tyrone v Derry County/North Antrim v East Antrim v South Antrim/North Armagh v North Down v South Down/South Armagh

  • Kevin Breslin

    The horrible truth might be as Colin Murphy pretty much says “We are “all” culchies”, whether we live in Comber or Castlereagh, Donemana or Derry, Ballymena or Belfast, Lettershendoney or Lisburn, and North Antrim or North Down. When you think of how parochial our urban population may be, he does have a point.

  • Gingray

    Ha!

  • mickfealty

    That one escaped me. I recall far more talk of SF taking the Business portfolio, and they didn’t much to the visceral surprise of the DUP.

    But lets stick to hypothetical consequences? What is the worst that could actually happen if SF took Finance?

  • Dan

    I’m interested in current affairs, politics and the like, but to be perfectly frank, I’d rather squirt expanding foam in my ears than spend a moment longer listening to anything any of those useless bullshitters have to say.
    Heard it all before, seen them all fail to deliver anything by way of constructive government.

    They can’t ‘make it work’, as for taking us ‘faster, forward’ etc. Give my head peace.

  • kensei

    Do you mean “from a Unionist perspective”? i’m not sure you’d use that framing for other parties.

    The DUP refused to pay for the Narrow Water bridge, even though there was a lot of EU money on offer. It’s fair to say that while budgets need agreed by the Executive, that probably would not have not happened with an SF Finance Minister. The DUP could find themselves on the end of more of those sorts of decisions and if they go for petitions of concern that could escalate fairly quickly.

    Could an SF Finance Minister cut funding for parading even by an indirect route, such as requiring equality assessments or similar requirements in order to secure funding? It also gives SF a stick to threaten the DUP departments with, without necessarily going the whole PoC route – I’m pretty sure the DUP have done this in the past.

  • mickfealty

    If that’s the worst then, really, what’s to fear?