NI leader’s debate: “This was politics on bromide”

In the Sunday Times Liam Clarke provides the most accurate assessment of the Northern Ireland party leaders debate so far.

Dougal did put a few awkward questions about abstentionism and expenses to Adams and Robinson, but these interventions made no more than a plop on the placid surface of the leisurely discussion. This was politics on bromide. In football parlance, Ritchie, Empey, Robinson and Adams all played a closed, defensive game. There were no long balls, no fouls, and no excitement either.

He also touches on some of the economic points Eamonn has identified

The fact that all four parties are in government put a further dampener on the debate.

But their common, and generally uncosted, assumptions could have been challenged. All four were agreed that corporation tax should be reduced from 21%-28% to the 12.5% charged in the Republic. The DUP is aiming for 10%. Nobody mentioned that, according to government figures, £300m would have to be subtracted from the block grant paid by Westminster, and the exercise would cost the Treasury up to £2.2 billion. Yet none of the parties wanted cuts in anything but “waste”. Adams talked of funding an ambitious spending programme with “fiscal powers” which would allow the Assembly to raise local taxes. However, Sinn Fein, along with all the other parties, has already opted to buy popularity by foregoing the revenue-raising powers already available. They have frozen regional rates and not imposed water charges, at a revenue loss of £500m a year. [added emphasis]

On present form, none of the parties has the nerve to impose taxes over and above those that flow from Westminster. Their main idea to pay for investment is to increase the flow of funds from Britain, but how this will be achieved is not spelt out, apart from a commitment to negotiate it.

And his final point is worth repeating

In the long term, though, placid debates are not healthy, either for TV ratings or the political process. A functioning democracy needs cut and thrust to engage the public, and keep elected representatives on their toes. The BBC is due to stage another leaders’ debate on May 4, two days before the election. Let’s hope it finds a way to inject more drama into the proceedings. Otherwise it will be another switch-off.

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