The opening statements in tonight’s UTV Leaders’ Debate highlighted the diversity of opinion around why we are going to the polls on 2 March. The opposition parties were united that it was all about RHI with Colum Eastwood personalising the issue as “one person on this panel designed a scheme that is costing you half a billion pounds … another person let them away with it”.
Mike Nesbitt called it a “referendum on how the two parties handled the RHI crisis”, referring to the “incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and a whiff of corruption”.
Michelle O’Neill thought it was about RHI too and explained that “Martin McGuinness stepped Arlene Foster aside”. The DUP leader blamed
Gerry Adam’s Sinn Féin for the unexpected poll – later on blaming it on Gerry Adams’ republican agenda not getting its way and pulling the institutions down – while Naomi Long saw it as an opportunity to transform politics and change Northern Ireland for good Sinn Féin
Michelle O’Neill was clear that “Sinn Féin want to deliver in the Assembly [jobs and health] and build bridges in our divided society”. She didn’t major on the Irish border, Irish language, or even speculate about being the largest party and in line to become First Minister.
But the threat, I mean, possibility, of a Sinn Féin First Minister was weighing heavily on Arlene Foster’s mind. Her opening and closing statements were dominated by the need to keep Sinn Féin at bay. “Your vote will decide who will be returned with the most seats … There is a real chance that Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin could come first.” Later she reiterated “We all know that Sinn Féin want to be the largest party.”
Naomi Long debunked Arlene Foster’s notion that a powerful Sinn Féin would bring about a border poll: “If after this election Sinn Féin are the largest party, and that’s a big ‘if’, … the border would not move an inch right or left. Let’s put that to one side and not use fear …”
She suggested while Arlene Foster “may not be over the jot and tittle of everything”, the DUP leader well understood the DUP’s numerical dominance over Sinn Féin.
Mike Nesbitt cheekily countered that the role of First Minister didn’t seem to be so all-powerful given that the deputy First Minister’s “signed the First Minister’s resignation chit”. He defended his personal vote transfer strategy and Colum Eastwood was happy to support “transferring down the ticket in a cross-community way” if people wanted a change in government.
Arlene Foster batted away the suggestion that she should stand aside until the public inquiry reported by citing examples of ministerial whoopsies by Michelle O’Neill, Conor Murphy and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir that didn’t require such a move.
The second part focussed on how politicians would plan to get the institutions up and running after the election. Colum Eastwood reckoned that if people voted for DUP and Sinn Féin then there would be “protracted negotiations”. But he insisted “we’re not running for opposition, we’re running for government”.
Mike Nesbitt wasn’t “fatalistic about the result” and helped political bingo players tick another box when he said that people on the doorsteps were “talking more about politics … they want change”. Naomi Long wanted “open transparent accountable government” and if Alliance’s big five issues were not agreed to by the other Executive parties and they were unable to be part of the Executive, she promised that Alliance would hold the government to account fairly in constructive opposition.
By the mid-point of the debate, the five leaders were talking over each other – often three at a time – and many of the exchanges descended into scrappy squabbles. Does that communicate anything positive to voters and non-voters?
“This characterisation that things have been terrible for a long time is not true” said Arlene Foster, defending the joint articles celebrating Executive success. The focus switched to Brexit after the second ad break. The NI Executive hadn’t failed to communicate its demands to the UK Government argued the DUP leader. “We [FM+dFM] wrote to the Prime Minister back in August with clear priorities.”
Michelle O’Neill interrupted at one point to ask about the funding of the DUP-attributed pro-Brexit wraparound advert on Metro magazines across Great Britain. Arlene Foster quickly deflated the issue by explaining the donation was received from “an organisation in England” that believed in leaving the EU. The discussion moved on without any more details.
Standing at either end of the five lecterns, neither Mike Nesbitt nor Colum Eastwood interrupted each other at any point in the hour long debate. The former Opposition parties do not publicly war with each other or score points. No one criticised Naomi Long – preferring to mostly ignore Alliance – though she came out with a couple of the most memorable soundbites of the evening, at one point describing the bed-hopping UUP as “the Lothario of NI politics”. That’s a gift to local cartoonists and should generate some memorable images over the next few mornings.
As always there are three campaigns leading up to 2 March: one intra-unionist, one intra-nationalist and a third centre ground skirmish trying to tempt higher preferences out of unionist/nationalist ghettos.
Arlene Foster’s rhetoric of fear was brazenly delivered but while her references to Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin may hurt republicans, they are clearly aimed at encouraging the DUP’s loyalist vote.
Michelle O’Neill didn’t overly attack the SDLP, perhaps ignoring them sent a stronger message of irrelevancy to Sinn Féin supporters.
The decision of the party leaders to use autocue meant that their opening times and statements were well delivered and other than Michelle O’Neill looking into the wrong camera for her closing statement, they all looked and sounded professional throughout.
There were no knock out blows. Few punches caused any leader to wobble towards the ropes. Instead they parried them away with relative ease.
While the lack of a studio audience eliminated oohs and ahs and mischievous clapping, it did also mean that the questions could be crisply delivered by Marc Mallett who kept the rough and tumble in the playground as well-behaved as could be expected.
If there was a winner of tonight’s debate it was Cliché. Though Lothario might be a close runner up. And Gerry Adams would be in third place – he tried to go away but it was clear that Arlene Foster was the one keeping him alive in the minds of her northern voters.
UTV will return next Thursday evening with the smaller parties. BBC NI’s election debate will be broadcast on the evening of Tuesday 28 February, two nights before polls open.
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.