The UTV Leaders’ Debate was held tonight and, as a spectacle, I have to admit to finding it fascinating. Heat was finally generated in this election campaign, with the two leaders of unionism having a stand up shouting match over Tom’s suggestion that Peter had a crush on Catriona.
The Executive’s internal divisions were borne out in Peter and Martin’s patronising praise for David’s willingness to play ball whilst the two loners (Tom and Margaret) were chided for their insolent ways. The boot was put in repeatedly to Tom for his party’s foolish flirtation with UCUNFery, an exchange which provoked the loudest applause of the night from the audience- an ominous sign for the fledgling leadership of Elliott.
The only hint of an outbreak of hostilities along the traditional orange- green lines came when both unionist parties intimated that the Catholic Church and nationalists should have agreed to a single education system from the foundation of the northern state. However, both McGuinness and Ritchie ducked from this engagement, leaving it to Noel Doran of the Irish News to deliver a robust defence of educational choice in the post-match analysis.
Ken Reid got it right in his post-debate analysis when he gave the nod to McGuinness and Robinson as both oozed the type of self-confidence that comes from knowing they are days away from another electoral victory within their respective communities.
McGuinness displayed an ability to speak fluently the post-peace process language in a manner that remains alien to Gerry Adams, and his commanding stature, coupled with frequent nods to the achievements of ‘Peter and I,’ illustrated just why Sinn Fein were correct to let Adams sit these debates out.
Peter Robinson clearly relished the occasion, with his body language exuding a sense of comfort and self-confidence, pouncing on both Elliott and Ritchie (and Ford over water rates) whilst maintaining an unspoken allied front with McGuinness.
Indeed, as if to illustrate their more sluggish performance, both Ritchie and Elliott missed the opportunity repeatedly to suggest to Peter and Martin that they get a room to consummate their relationship.
After the debate, Peter Robinson himself helpfully tweeted (and without humility) putting himself first alongside Martin McGuinness, with Tom Eliott (unsurpsingly) coming in last in the First Minister’s opinion. There might be no praise like self praise, but this time he got it just about right.