The five leaders of Stormonts main parties gathered at the Lyric Theatre for the first debate of the 2016 assembly election.
Three weeks out from polling day the party leaders are keen not to make mistakes and it showed tonight. All five seemed to have a conservative approach with few direct engagements between leaders and few interruptions.
Moderator Marc Mallett asked questions on the Fresh Start Agreement, Economy, Education, Health and Abortion rights.
The first segment invited leaders to make their direct pitches to voters. Colum Eastwood (who had the strongest opener in my view) spoke about being the newest face on the stage which represented a new SDLP with a desire for change. He argued that this election was a chance look beyond the past and that voters cannot be expected to remain greatful for parties simply remaining in government.
David Ford opened up by telling people he shared their frustration with Stormont, but if people really wanted change, they needed to vote for it and not put up with what he called slow moving politics. He pledged no more pausing and no more rewinding.
Arlene Foster (who had the weakest opener in my view) spoke of her desire to get things done and her five point plan to achieve more for Northern Ireland. She made her pitch very personal saying if voters elected her as First Minister we could build a stronger Northern Ireland and she ended by encouraging you to vote for her DUP candidates.
Martin McGuinness’ pitch focused on defending the Fresh Start Agreement which he argued was a better approach for devolution. He argued that this was the time for positive, experienced and responsible leadership that could work for the future.
Mike Nesbitt was the last leader up; he argued that this election was about change vs. more of the same. Like Eastwood, he made the pitch that the UUP had changed and renewed under his leadership and was ready to lead again and make Stormont work.
Fresh Start Agreement/Devolution
This segment focused on pitting the DUP and Sinn Fein’s record against the charge from the DUP and UUP that the last 9 years had been littered with failure.
Foster began making her pitch on the importance of the DUP holding the First Minister’s post, telling viewers about the symbolic importance of that office and the more influence that the largest party has around the Executive table. Despite being probed by Mallet about Sinn Fein becoming the largest party, she refused to deal hypotheticals.
Eastwood and McGuinness did have a brief encounter with one another over the Fresh Start Agreement as the Deputy First Minister accused the SDLP of not showing leadership on the issue and had that agreement not been signed, Northern Ireland would now be under Direct Rule. Eastwood argued that people need to stop being asked to feel greatful just for the symbolism of parties being in government.
This segment was as indicative of any of the conservative approach that party leaders had taken to this debate.
Viewers heard about David Ford bringing measures before the Assembly to deal with abortions in cases of Fatal Foetal Abnormality. Colum Eastwood reiterated the SDLP’s pro-life stance, but slightly nuanced this by emphasising his belief that the case last week should be dealt with compassion from society and he wasn’t sure that the prosecution was in the public interest. Foster made similar pitch for compassion, but stressed the DUP’s pro-life credentials. Martin McGuinness challenged the characterisation of Sinn Fein as a pro-choice party, but did say that they supported some reforms of the law. He stressed the case of Sarah Ewart and argued that some parties had let people like her down over the issue of abortion guidelines.
Out of all the leaders for me, Mike Nesbitt had the strongest platform, coming out decisively against last week’s prosecution, viewing it as unfair and clearly stated his support for a change in the law regarding Fatal Foetal Abnormality.
This segment really pitted Sinn Fein against the SDLP with some exchanges over Sinn Fein’s record in handling this job over the past 9 years. McGuinness highlighted that under the party’s tenure in education the number of students getting 5 good GCSE’s had increased and noted comments about the strength of our local system. McGuinness argued that the ultimate situation he would like to get to would be a Finnish model of education with no selection.
Eastwood responded arguing that McGuinness had not really abolished the 11 plus as students are now sitting 3 and 4 exams today. He argued that under the SDLP, selection would go for good and that too many of our students are failing in the current system. The SDLP leader set out his stall for a new digital academy and making maths compulsory until the age of 18. McGuinness hit back at Eastwood arguing that it was the Grammar Schools, not the government who were testing children at 11 and urged the practice to stop.
In this segment, Eastwood spelt out SDLP plans to make prioritise investment in areas that have been left behind traditionally. He spelt out plans to reduce fees, reverse cuts in higher education and invest in skills using Barnett Consequential that he says come to around £220 million. Foster contradicted the SDLP leader’s claims about investment outside of Belfast noting that nearly 10,000 new jobs have been created in the West and pointedly accused others of talking Northern Ireland down.
Probably the most interesting part of the segment was McGuinness’ strong statement on the devolution of Corporation Tax saying that he was as resolute as Arlene Foster in seeing this reform happen. He highlighted economic successes of the last Executive noting that more Foreign Direct Investment has been achieved that at any time in the history of Northern Ireland which has resulted in a steady decline unemployment.
Nesbitt highlighted the importance of getting people who are suffering from poor mental health active in our economic life which will help our society as a whole. His pitch chimed with Eastwoods as he argued that under the last recession Northern Ireland was better protected than any other region but we are still lagging behind other UK regions and the Irish Republic in terms of economic growth.
I found this debate to be conservative, lacking in any real encounters between the leaders and overall it was a play it safe approach. Three weeks out from polling day, none of the leaders want to make a mistake which is grand. No leader will have lost a vote tonight, but I doubt if any of them will have picked up many either.
Marc Mallett did a good job at hosting, but at the next BBC debate, there will need to more encounters to show that there are some clear differences and energy in parties.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs