BBC Spotlight European Debate #SpotlightNI

So, tonight I wandered over to the BBC to watch the last European candidates’ debate. What became apparent within the first ten minutes is how much political coverage in Northern Ireland misses Noel Thompson-an effective chairman with a dry wit and real knowledge of the issues.

On to the debate itself-the format was excellent with fewer candidates being given longer to debate. It was really was a night and day experience from UTV last night as Thompson was able to probe candidates further and the audience being there really added something to the debate.

The Candidates

Anderson continued with her winning strategy of calmly demonstrating her vast knowledge of European funding streams and the need for Northern Ireland to draw down funds from Horizon 20/20 and the European Investment Bank. When she was put under pressure by Allister over the victim’s issue, she very skilfully turned away from the issue by simply saying that looking back would not achieve anything. Overall, I think she did enough to consolidate her position going into the final two days of the race; she acted like a winner and as somebody who was getting ready for another term in Brussels.

Dodds did well on issues like immigration, which did come as some surprise to me. She was strong in condemning racist attacks in Belfast and actually highlighted that the DUP now publishes its literature in 7 different languages to appeal to a wider group of voters. She didn’t really get tripped up over controversial issues such as the Maze and actually held her own throughout much of the debate. Only critique was at the start she fell into the trap of ‘I am one of your best MEPs….’ And like I said in another post this doesn’t really work.

Nicholson much to my surprise seemed more engaged than he did last night. He was able to articulate some key successes of his tenure in Europe from peace funding to agriculture subsidies. I was a bit taken a back when he spoke about abortion with his statement that too many men comment on the issue and he appeared to be really wrestling with his conscience over it. It was a rare human moment from him that I have certainly never seen before and overall, I think he can come out of tonight with a smile on his face.

Attwood had a very good night-he was clear and articulate throughout the debate. There were strong statements on European membership, abortion and agriculture which I think is vital in giving his campaign and the SDLP some depth. Like Nicholson, he didn’t get tripped up and did a very good job over taking on Allister about how well Northern Ireland would do outside the European Union. The SDLP should be incredibly happy tonight and if Attwood gets in on Monday-this performance could’ve sent many crucial voters his way.

Allister was interestingly the only candidate without any notes with him. He was prepped, prepared and ready to do battle and it showed. He went on the attack early and often which was crucial for him to do as he needs to motivate those TUV voters or disaffected Unionists to come out for him, rather than Henry Reilly. His base would’ve loved his attacks on Anderson over victims with statements like ‘it wasn’t very fair planting bombs’ and his attacks on Europe will have appealed to UKIP voters. Importantly at the end he took on the notion of vote splitting and really nailed it that Unionists can use their transfers to ensure a second seat.

Lo did well in parts of the debate-she was strong when she took on Dodds over Robinson and condemning racist attacks in East Belfast and spoke well over the issue of abortion. Some of her wider message did get a bit lost in parts of the debate as she didn’t really have any rebuttal to the Euro question and she did run over in her opening statement which to her being cut off. Progressives/Liberals/Letsgetalongerists (as FJH would say) would have liked her position on abortion and her emphasis on using EU funds for shared future projects; I am not sure however, that she appealed outside of her base in this debate.

Overall-I would give the debate to Allister along with Attwood. None of the contenders really tripped up and Dodds would get the prize of the most improved performer from last time. I think each appealed to their base, but I just suspect Attwood might have given something to other voters to bump him up a notch on their ballot papers.

What did you guys think?

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs