The hour-long BBC NI Leaders’ Debate (available on iPlayer) wisely ditched opening and closing statements and jumped straight in with questions from the start. It was initially a scrappy affair – perhaps feisty – as Arlene Foster (DUP) and Mike Nesbitt (UUP) interrupted and locked horns with each other, and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) and Colum Eastwood (SDLP) squared up to each other. At one point the Deputy First Minister stepped in to stop a heated exchange between presenter Noel Thompson and the First Minister and peace reigned briefly before Colum Eastwood heckled and another fight started.
Questions on why it matters who was First Minister and dealing with health waiting lists were followed by one on why the Fresh Start didn’t address victims and survivors. The audience went quiet. The sound of chatter in the separate ‘spin room’ increased. The answers from leaders grew longer and interruptions all but stopped. While important issues, there was a general disengagement. Even the Twitter traffic on the #bbcnidebate hashtag seemed to wane. I wonder was there a power surge as kettles were boiled?
Mike Nesbitt’s early attacks over the DUP’s Five Point Plans and the five word election strategy of “Do Not Mention Peter Robinson” stung, but some of his later answers lacked punch and may regret quipping “we’ll take anything” when asked if the UUP wanted the education ministry.
David Ford (Alliance) was accused of leaking (and defended himself and his department). Asked to explain how an extra £1 billion would be found to fund health over five years, Martin McGuinness was less than confident as he explained how the monitoring rounds and Barnett Consequentials would serve this “costed” plan.
Despite provocation, Arlene Foster stayed on the right side of being spirited but avoided coming over as plain cross. While he had chances to answer questions, the other prized fighters didn’t waste their punches on David Ford, keeping him out of the limelight while unionists and nationalists picked on each other.
Very few policies were articulated. Very few specific achievements were quoted. Everyone wanted to depoliticise health and listen to experts. An audience member’s comment about “gay blood” allowed Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt the chance to articulate their willingness to accept anyone’s blood. The issue of Gerry Adams’ tweet and how well the SDLP manifesto was costed didn’t surface. Instead, the DUP’s targeted constituent letters were waved.
The leaders momentarily got their wind back for a final spar around how they could work together better in the future. And then it was the turn of the smaller parties (also available on iPlayer). Clare Bailey (Green Party) found herself stuck between Jim Allister (TUV) and David McNarry (UKIP) who were displaying their skill at playing the interrupting game, while Tara Mills successfully talked over them and kept control.
Despite a previous closeness, there’s now no love lost between the TUV and UKIP. At one point David McNarry accused Jim Allister of being likely to return to the Assembly as he had left it “a one man band”, only for the TUV leader to retort that UKIP would be a “no man band”. That’s as good as the banter got.
Clare Bailey said the main debate had been “uninspiring”. Jim Allister critiqued the lack of voluntary opposition – we wouldn’t have “stable or durable government” without it – and David McNarry said people on the doorstep told him the European Referendum couldn’t be separated from the Assembly election.
No one wanted to throw away their party’s chances 36 hours before the polls open and the leaders will be satisfied that they walked away from the Great Victoria Street studio with a few bruises but no major cuts.
The democratic process is unlikely to be a winner. Turnout dipped below 50% in three constituencies at the 2011 Assembly election, and was only above 60% in four. (Overall 2011 turnout was 55.7%.)
I saw little tonight that would encourage turnout, whether from normally active voters, new first time voters, or electorate who have recently stayed away from their polling station.
That’s a shame. Though it’s probably good news for the smaller parties who will disproportionally hoover up the votes of young people who can be bothered to vote.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.