The five main party leaders gathered at the BBC Blackstaff studio tonight to discuss issues such as RHI, Brexit, Direct Rule & cross community voting.
Chaired by Noel Thompson, he very ably directed candidates and the audience through out the night.
For me, the strongest performance was from Colum Eastwood.
For parties like the SDLP, just letting people know that you are on the stage is an achievement and he did this in spades tonight. From the opening segment on RHI, he went on the attack without coming across as aggressive or dismissive of his political rivals. At the 2016 debate, Eastwood seemed a bit unsteady and unsure of himself, spending whole segments letting others battle it out, but this time he made his voice heard across the topics.
Whether this shifts any votes to the SDLP remains to be seen, but anybody watching that debate will know he was there and it was a marked improvement from last year.
For Michelle O’Neill this was her first outing on a BBC debate. Overall, she did well in some parts of the debate and seemed unsteady on others. During the Brexit segment, talks and the cross community voting question she was clear and concise. Clearly spelling out why she dislikes the DUP position and why she doesn’t trust the British government to conduct the Brexit talks for Northern Ireland. Likewise on cross communal voting, she clearly answered the question with a slight dig at People Before Profit. On post-election talks, she had some good lines with “I am not interested in 5 things for Nationalism or 5 things for Unionism” with an emphasis on her equality message.
However, on other segments such as going back into government with the DUP and the RHI issue, I felt she seemed a bit unsteady. There was a slightly odd exchange with Eastwood over a United Ireland being an issue over going back into government.
Overall, she had a decent showing on her first outing for Sinn Fein.
Another first timer to the debates was Alliance Party Leader, Naomi Long. Most punters will always expect Naomi to do well in debates as she has normally led on TV appearances for the party. For Alliance, all of the fire power was directed against Arlene tonight with regularly engagements between the two over RHI, Brexit and the general approach to politics here. Naomi did well in getting a few one liners in against Foster and did appear to get some relevant points across about the Alliance approach.
Overall, a good first outing as leader and she did get a focus on the Alliance approach.
Mike Nesbitt is facing his second assembly election as UUP leader and this is his second round of TV debates. Last year, he was for me the strongest leader in debates. However, this year he was much more reserved and for much of the debate, the main opposition was led by Eastwood rather than Mike. He did have a good encounter with Foster over the issue of cross community voting as he reminded her that “Martin McGuinness wrote your resignation.”
Overall, he made no mistakes, dealt with transferring to the SDLP well, but compared to the other opposition party leaders he didn’t perform as strongly as they did.
Last but certainly not least we have DUP Leader, Arlene Foster. There was always going to be issues for her as the attack on the DUP is always going to be attractive for the other leaders. On the plus side, she didn’t seem to get angry, but she did appear to be dismissive at many moments during the debate and over issues such as RHI, it did appear like she was attempting to deflect. She failed to land any serious punches on any of her opponents and missed moments to really put forward the DUP approach.
Overall, she had the weakest performance of all the leaders, but then again she was not particularly strong last year and it didn’t seem to hurt her performance at the polls.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs