This morning the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland hosted the first debate amongst all of the European candidates (Jim Allister didn’t turn up and Basil McCrea was representing NI21.)
The event was attended by around 80 people at the top floor of the Europa Hotel.
The debate kicked off with each candidate setting out their pitch about what they can/are bringing to the European Union.
There did seem to be a general consensus that Northern Ireland was not taking full advantage of obtaining funding in the areas of agriculture and infrastructure. It did seem a bit like Groundhog Day, as I remembered some of the very same candidates making that point five years ago. However, some startling figures were quoted that Northern Ireland was drawing down in some cases less than a quarter than that of the Irish Republic in some respects. Although, we should bear in mind that the Executive has actually handed funds back over the Narrow water Bridge and the Maze project.
There were some arguments, Martina Anderson took on Jim Nicholson over cuts to the EU budget claiming that he supported cutting CAP and peace money, wereas, he was arguing that he was merely cutting waste. Listen from 1hr 14mins in
The other argument came from Basil McCrea to the FSB NI Chair, Wilfred Mitchell, who complained that he was not being given enough time to speak. Full audio here
About 15 minutes later, Basil left the panel without excusing himself to the chair as Alex Attwood and Jim Nicholson had done before him.
But, how did other minor parties feel about the time they got, speaking to me after the Green party candidate Ross Brown said
I thought I had enough time to make the points I wanted to – though I did have something to say on the agri food issue. But by in large I was satisfied with the time I got
Overall, what did I learn? I was a bit confused by the DUP policy on an in-out referendum-Dodds said she supported reform of the European Union and gaining EU Funds but followed up with a statement that she didn’t really think Cameron had a hope of achieving anything in terms of reform and that ultimately the party would vote to leave the European Union.
One thing I did notice Anderson has developed a much more positive narrative on our place in Europe than any of her predecessors. She repeated five times throughout the debate that our place is in Europe and the suggestions she gave for reform where not particularly big items. Also like Dodds, she was very much on top the brief and was able to quote figures and procedures without any real notes in front of her.
The other parties-I found Anna a bit subdued on a topic that she is traditionally passionate about. Henry Reilly gave the UKIP talk about withdrawing from the EU, but he failed to land any major blows. Ross Brown performed well and was able to challenge others on the panel, as well as, articulate some Green policies which often at times don’t coincide with the FSB. Mark Brotherston, the Conservative candidate, also found it difficult to transplant traditional Tory politics onto the NI audience. NI21 suffered from the fact that they didn’t have a candidate and this debate was certainly not Basil’s finest hour.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs