#EBDebate: The Robinson/Long debate (updated with video)

Slugger O’Toole (in partnership with Chambré Public Affairs and LucidTalk) hosted our first ever election debate at the Strand Art Centre last night between Gavin Robinson and Naomi Long.

For some this debate was controversial as it was a head to head between the two main contenders. [Ed – though they are the only candidates from parties who didn’t lose their deposit in 2010 who are standing this year, if you factor in the polling from previous and subsequent elections that suggests the majority of UCUNF’s vote was ex-UUP rather than ex-Tory.]

However, after a tense night at the Willowfield debate, both candidates were good humoured and friendly at the Slugger debate. The debate lasted just over an hour and with a sharper format we hoped to get some contrasts between the two candidates. If you want to listen back to the debate you can do so below.

Before we got going with the two candidates, LucidTalk pollster, Bill White polled our [Ed – politically skewed] audience to see what they thought were the important issues in this election and just who they thought would win in some key constituencies.


Our panel of Sam McBride, Alex Kane and Allison Morris quizzed the candidates for a little under an hour, under the moderation of our very own Alan Meban.

The debate covered a range of topics from pacts, to flag leaflets, the European Union and the recent racist attack in East Belfast.

For one of our panellists, Sam McBride a key take away moment was Gavin Robinson’s response to his leaders “Dry your tears away” comments as his report noted this quote from the DUP candidate;

Rather than put quotes from others to me, listen to what I have to say…while Naomi and I differ fundamentally on a lot of issues, she’s a capable politician. I’ve no difficulty in acknowledging that..Listen to what I say…you’ll not hear comments like that [from me].


The Belfast Telegraph’s, Rebecca Black picked up on an exchange between the two how certain businesses in East Belfast would be impacted if Northern Ireland left the EU writing;

The DUP candidate cited Ms Long’s recent comments that the area could lose out on manufacturing jobs if the UK was to leave the EU, her stand against paramilitaries in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph earlier this year and her concerns about Tesco leaving Connswater Shopping Centre.

Ms Long hit back saying she would not airbrush over issues and that she was being realistic.

“You need to talk positively,” Mr Robinson urged Ms Long, to which she responded: “we need to talk realistically”.

A total of six candidates are running for election in Belfast East:

  • Ross Brown (Green Party)
  • Naomi Long (Alliance)
  • Mary Muldoon (SDLP)
  • Niall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Féin)
  • Gavin Robinson (DUP)
  • Neil Wilson (Conservatives)

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  • T.E.Lawrence

    The declared audience at the venue of the debate 37% Unionist and 63% Others does not reflect the last election results of the East Belfast Constituency at Belfast City Council Elections 2014. Unionist received 20,051 Votes (60%) and Others 13,420 Votes (40%)

  • Turgon

    Yes but let us be clear. As discussed in detail both here and on Fitzjameshorse’s blog (though censored from Alan in Belfast’s slugger contribution) many feel this was a deliberate gerrymandering of publicity to help Long.

    This was an event specifically designed to help Alliance. The leading movers in it are committed to trying to help Long. In view of the gerrymandering of the terms of reference I have no doubt the audience numbers could equally easily be manipulated. Indeed such was the way it was all done they may not have needed to be manipulated as “progressives” will have felt much more welcome.

    To be honest I think Gavin Robinson should have refused to go. If he is elected this gerrymander should be thrown back in the faces of its organisers every time they preen about inclusivity and impartiality.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I would sit more lefter than Gavin and the DUP but I did not like the set-up either, however I am sure Gavin will get enough revenge when he leads his winning cavalcade through East Belfast. I have a Funny Feeling where the first port of call will be !

  • mickfealty

    Turgon, this deserves a fuller and more open reply than I have time to give you right now. But I will lay it out for you in some detail when I do.

    Here’s a quick short list:

    One, there is a place for inclusive hustings. there’s been lots of good ones (the MAC on Arts policy I’m hearing good things of) and clearly they fed into Tuesday’s two headed debate.

    Two, this was deliberately exclusive for a purpose. The low cut off point was 10% support in the constituency and that was the case in the other constituencies where we tried to a similar event up and going.

    Three, why did we do it this way? Well Northern Ireland is drowning in PC guff. But FPTP is a pretty simple pre-historic operation for deciding who gets power and who doesn’t. No one else is in this race but these two.

    Four, the audience was (and we know this because it was us through Lucid Talk who measured and disseminated it) heavily pre-disposed towards the Alliance party candidate. We did not attempt to pre-control this (which is the only way these accusations stand up). It happened that way because these were the people who snapped up 250 tickets in the first four hours.

    Five, this may or may not be important in terms of who people chose to vote for, but it is an honest measure of digital fitness of the two parties.

    As for honesty in general, I will deal with that scallyag Mooney later and under separate cover. 🙁

  • Brian O’Neill

    Can I add to Micks comments that all the ticket bookings were for one or two tickets. There was no block booking going on. If you watch the video you will see Gavin got any many claps as Naomi did. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCC1iteDCZBF1guXeK9TN-cA

  • We also didn’t deliberately didn’t take Qs directly from the audience – knowing that it was unlikely to be representative – asked them not to applaud to reduce any partisan nature of the audience, and if it was a “deliberate gerrymandering of publicity to help Long” then it’s odd that the DUP agreed to participate.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    If DUP were invited to appear and refused, they would have been criticised on this website.

    Any candidate running away from any debate would be criticized on any sensible website, and by the public in general. David Cameron may yet come to regret his refusal to participate in debates across the water.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    To all the people complaining about bias :

    go and set up your own damn bias-free website and running bias-free hustings. Get back to us and tell us about your huge success.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Why is there no comparison ? It makes no difference whether the debate is inclusive or, as you see it, exclusive.

  • Not so – other potential hustings fell through and no fuss has been made! Two or more candidates need to agree to tango on the same night in the same place to be able to arrange a dance.

  • mickfealty

    Under separate cover John.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Nobody cares about my opinions, or your opinions, and I doubt most people care about the editorial opinions of this website or the events that it organises. To suggest that this hustings event materially influenced the outcome of the election is to overstate the influence of a self-selecting group of middle class well educated people on a constituency which has a much broader mix than that.

    I think some winding in of necks might be in order.

    I couldn’t care less about what you think of my opinions or what my motivations for anonymity are. I’m here to read about politics and see the views of others talking about politics, and contribute my own perspective where it might add to the discussion. I’m bored to death of reading pompous complaints and attacks on the proprietors of the site. I’ve heard your opinion already – I don’t need to keep hearing it.

  • Turgon

    There seem to be two views on this. John Mooney and mine and those of the debates organisers.

    Essentially I have two concerns one general and one specific.

    On the general one I have a problem with restricting those invited to a hustings meeting: it seems democratically wrong to me. Selective hustings events simply seem wrong. The Leaders debates I can accept in that only a limited number of the leaders of the GB parties could conceivably become Prime Minister as they did not have members of their parties standing in enough constituencies.

    As such a debate involving Cameron, Milliband and Clegg would not be appropriate as it is not inclusive. One would need to have Bennett and Farage but could exclude the others.

    The BBC managed to tie itself in knots over all this. Its treatment of the NI parties was unfair but its treatment (and justification) of its treatment of the SNP and Plaid was logically flawed.

    My personal preference would be to have no leaders debates: we are a parliamentary not a presidential democracy.

    Slugger, I fear jumped onto the debates bandwagon and then conflated leaders debates and hustings. That leads me on to the specific issue in hand.

    Hustings in a single constituency should include all those standing: it seems a basic democratic principle. To prejudge the level of support from a previous election which gains a candidate the right to attend a hustings seems presumptuous and even arrogant. If one cannot grant this opportunity to all then one should grant it to none.

    That is my position. I accept that some on slugger have a different position. It may be legal but I think it is an antidemocratic position.

    This brings me to the accusations of deliberate bias.

    Mick, Brian, Alan and David have all denied any intentional bias. That may be true but it runs into some problems as rightly or wrongly some of them may be perceived as supporters of letsgetalongerism and even the Alliance Party. As such slugger has a perception problem. That (the perception of letsgetalongerist bias on slugger) is in addition likely to be a major reason for the unbalanced nature of the audience.

    Furthermore there is a perception that many in wider letsgetalongerism desperately want Long to win.

    In addition even if there was no intentional bias the effect of the exclusive decision was to exclude parties whose voters would be more likely to switch from their (excluded) party to Alliance rather than the DUP.

    This makes some of us concerned and a bit skeptical.

    Now it seems that there were attempts to organise other exclusive hustings meetings. On a theoretical democratic level I object to those but that is a personal view. I do not expect all to agree with me and I suspect this is a case where many of us can respectfully agree to differ. Furthermore I accept that the organisers may not be willing to divulge which parties and individuals refused to attend the other exclusive hustings meetings and why.

    However, in terms of the allegations of deliberate bias it would be useful if we could have confirmed that some of the other putative hustings meetings would have excluded Alliance and been between say DUP and UUP (e.g. Strangford which by the slugger system would have excluded Alliance as it got less than 10%) or DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein (Upper Bann, East Londonderry, Newry and Armagh, West Tyrone) or DUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein (Foyle and North Belfast) or just Sinn Fein and UUP (Fermanagh South Tyrone).

    The weakness of the 10% rule is also demonstrated in North Down where there could be no hustings by the slugger system as only Lady Hermon and the UUP got >10% last time (the DUP did not stand) and this time the UUP are not standing.

    As I said above this is not an argument which is going to be solved but some sort of confirmation that slugger planned debates (even in a very tentative way) which would have excluded Alliance would assuage some of the allegations of deliberate systematic bias.

    On the accusations of accidental bias and the inappropriateness of exclusive hustings, I think this is a circle which is not going to be squared.