No Clegg effect in NI leaders’ debate

 

Thoughts from afar on the NI leaders’ debate,  the morning after the night before.

If David Ford had qualified for a seat at the table, could he have done a Nick Clegg.? As the minister of Justice and a prime advocate of a shared future, he would have made a difference. How much, we’ll never know – until next year that is, when we’ve got used to him. Other main points:

The welcome absence of Troubles whataboutery exposed the poverty of “normal” debate.

 Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams careful not to attack each other, confirming the twin peaks of NI politics. Both congratulate themselves on achieving full power sharing.

 The above two escape largely unscathed from their personal troubles. In both cases, no clear grounds of attack were discovered. Robinson hints at suing if any fresh attack attempted. Politics as a family business and an opulent lifestyle due to politics barely mentioned. All Adams contacts over child abuse scandal were” sympathetic,” he tells us. End of story. Empey and Ritchie are no attack dogs.

Electoral pacts bring the debate to life. Ritchie wins exchanges with the line  “pacts are alien to sharing ” Adams ingratiating with Robinson: ” there’s nothing wrong with pacts. I congratulate Peter for trying to get one.” Ritchie briefly looks brave and survives Adam’s bear hug but not too tight (Careful, she’s a woman and this is TV.) Adams sounds old school.

Adams fends off attacks for continuing Westminster abstention, now that SF have joined all the other bodies. He scorns the SDLP’s poor voting record and (righty) dismisses exaggerated claims for  the ” huge importance “of attendance at Westminster to bid for influence in a hung parliament. He adds grandiosely “For Ford workers I negotiated directly with the British Prime Minister.”

Reg’s claims for a direct influence as a potential member of a British government inevitably punctured by Robinson. “Reg could be chancellor or lobby fodder, I leave it to the voters to decide which is more likely”

The statesman falters. Adams smears Ritchie and the SDLP repeatedly with the ” very important” but entirely spurious claim that the SDLP’s Thomas Burns went to Afghanistan paid for by the MoD – ” the same MoD that tried to nobble the Saville Inquiry”.  But Ryanair doesn’t fly to Helmand. All such visits are under MoD sponsorship and protection. It hasn’t prevented many MPs from mounting searing attacks on the government. Adams gets away with the smear.

Nobody is prepared to be specific on cuts. Robinson claims that Empey as a Conservative supports big cuts this year ” round about June.” Empey replies with promise to cut part of the National Insurance rise.

Adams has most skin crawling out line. ” Protestant boys need equality”

Who won? No winner for me. Nothing new from a confident Adams or a tired and cautious Robinson. There was a certain novelty in Empey speaking for a leading UK party. Ritchie was embarrassing at first as she read from opening statement but warmed up and won points for decency, passion and sticking to her guns against Adams. But she is still very amateurish. No game changer, this debate.  It was just like the usual round table. You would hardly know an election was on.  But at least it was no zoo party.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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