#BBCNIDebate sees energetic exchanges & a broad range of issues discussed

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.



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  • The Irishman

    Your debating skills are excellent…

  • The Irishman

    My God… I have never face palmed so much in 1 thread. I must look like I’ve had a kicking by now.

  • Msiegnaro

    Thanks, I appreciate that.

  • Conor

    I thought it was very deminishing to the smaller parties by not having them on the leaders debate last night. They were only allowed around 15 mins on a so called “EXTENDED” BBC Newsline. This really is a disgrace as this treatment of them not only on the BBC but the UTVs debate as well, automically labels them in a bad way and not many people are going to get behind parties like People before Profit or the Green Party when they aren’t even allowed to tackle the other big parties on debates watched by around 100,000 people.

  • CB

    Eastwood performance was that of a confident leader ready for government . Overall the combined opposition was convincing and vindicated their decision to leave the Executive and expose the ineffectiveness of the SF/DUP pact.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Was there not a debate in St.Mary’s University College last week where the PBP candidate refused to answer a few questions on Brexit? Personally speaking, PBP would be exposed on such a stage. If it’s more face time the smaller parties want with the electorate, ratahr than a debate, then knock on doors or organise your own debates and stream live onto social media. It’s 2017, we don’t live in the dark ages. You can connect with people properly if you make the effort

  • Jag

    Has Arlene mislaid her love glasses? She was able to see her haters right well last night!

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    Ah thats right, remember that? Good God

  • cornelu mc grath

    What do you mean by Mc Guinness having Murphy picked?
    Did the SF AC reject Mc Guinness’s recommendation?

  • Karl

    Pan Nationalist is very 90s. Youre supposed to be talking about the RA these days. Republican Agenda is the catchy phrase that the DUP spin doctors hope will catch on and trip off the tongue of the local news readers

    The DUP communications department need everyone on message or they’ll revoke your membership

  • Katyusha

    I am not anti-UK per se. If the UK could be federalised and significant democratic reforms could be introduced, it would go a long way to mitigating the democratic deficit and centralism that plagues the UK in its current form. Look at the makeup of the current government. In the last Westminster election the SNP won almost every seat in Scotland, indicative of overwhelming regional support, while UKIP, despite a strong vote distributed throughout the country, won only a single seat. Neither party hold ANY power whatsover in Westminster, a democratic deficit which causes apathy and frustration in the populace, leading in the first instance to strong support for Scottish independence, and in the second instance to the marginalised working class throughout England and Wales lashing out in the Brexit vote.

    The UK can be decentralised and democratised – in theory, at least. I don’t have any prediction that it will actually come to pass, especially given the current political makeup of Westminster. Indeed, IF such a federal structure could be established I would not be against Ireland joining the UK, although such an idea is a fantasy – the republic of Ireland has been an overwhelming success story since it’s independence, especially compared to the war-torn and poverty-stricken existence it emerged from. There is no way they are going to cede independence, and nor should they.

    Well that’s it for politics. Culturally I like the UK. I lived in England for some time and may be returning within the next year-and-a-half. Neither am I anti-Unionist. Indeed, I am constantly pulled up on this site for not recognising Unionists as some kind of eternally-separate ethnic group. I have no time for the artificial tribal division of NI society. Unionists are however very poorly represented by the politicians that claim to represent them, I’d ask you not to confuse the two.

    As for my aspiration towards a UI, I have already presented you with the reason; because NI, despite at times having the best intentions and at times the worst intentions, has been completely unable to foster a normal, civil society or a functioning economy. If there is a historic basis, it is in ninety-five years of empirical evidence, of the political culture that entrenches division at every corner, and the dominance of the Westminster parliament that in tandem removes any democratic power from the Northern Irish people. I can see how Ireland as a whole can function as a powerful and coherent democratic unit, I can contrast the results of the RoI government taking aggressive measures to grow its economy compared to the moribund economy of NI, with our lack of control over economic levers, the drought of infrastructure investment especially in the west of the province, and the disastrous economic effect that partition had on the border regions on BOTH sides of the border. It is my view that the partition and isolation of Northern Ireland results in a fundamentally unstable political situation that gives rise to parties like the DUP – motivated simply to “protect the Union” against a perceived fifth column in NI, which in reality is a community that makes up almost half of the population and that the NI government is ALSO supposed to be governing in the interests of. This drives the social division, wastefulness and economic atrophy that characterises NI. It is my view that these issues arise from inherent structural flaws in NI and will not be resolved in the current constitutional framework. But if you have any ideas, I’d like to hear them.

    While I like my history, I have no more desire to construct the Republic of De Valera and Pearse than I have to restore the O’Neill or lead a Jacobite restoration.

  • Zorin001

    I’m confused, are you saying she should abandon any pretence of representing Northern Ireland as a whole? If so why is she First Minister, she knew the codes of conduct when she signed up.

  • Msiegnaro

    My mistake.

  • Conor

    PBP do a tremendous effort on knocking on the doors in all the constitunacies they’re running in. Now in terms of an online streamed debate; they’d struggle to get barely 100 people watching it. Audience numbers between that and the TV debate would be like the difference between night and day. Any party would struggle getting an audience for an online debate. All I am saying is I believe every party no matter what size should get a fair chance at the TV debate so we can see how they perform on that platform.

  • Zorin001

    As DUP leader she represents her strand of Unionism, as First Minister she is supposed to represent both communities of Northern Ireland both at home and abroad.

    I’m not a polictal waif, I know that this stuff gets chucked out the window when convenient but the DUP specifically signed up to this at St. Andrews. They don’t get to have their fingers crossed behind their back and say “sure we’ll only follow this when it suits us” and expect not to be called on it.

  • Katyusha

    As for the future? Northern Ireland needs to either become self-sufficient economically or find someone prepared to pick up the tab (I would immeasurably prefer the former!) before even thinking about a UI.

    Well, I wholeheartedly agree with you about trying to make Northern Ireland self-sufficient, but that’s not a plan, its merely an aspiration. The question is how can we make Northern Ireland self-sufficient, and whether is it even possible (from both an economic and political standpoint) to do so. It is the method, or lack of one, that is the problem. Personally as a northerner I find it a mark of great shame that Ulster is unable to survive without subvention, especially when it was previously the economic powerhouse of Ireland.

    As for SF, they are not the people to lead a turnaround in NI’s economic fortunes. They play themselves as hard socialists; they are actively arguing against the type of policies that could make NI competitive in the Dáil. Mainly because to do otherwise would be to endorse the ideology of their opponents.

    I have long espoused the establishment of a centre-right nationalist party in NI to help turn this country around. I have no faith whatsover in the supposedly pro-NI and pro-business DUP and UUP to do so, exemplified by the fact that this election has been fought on the basis of sectarian mudslinging with absolutely zero discussion of economic strategy or ambition.

    Put simply, the north needs Fine Gael. Or Fianna Fáil, who would sweep up the nationalist vote in rural areas within a few election cycles – there is really fertile ground for a FF-type party in rural NI. Almost as much as the Dáil needs Jim Allister.

  • DOUG

    Obvious Troll is Obvious

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    You sound like a big baby.

  • DOUG

    Obvious Troll is obvious

  • Msiegnaro

    Please dry up if you’ve nothing better to say.

  • Msiegnaro

    Practice your grammar.

  • Zorin001

    How on Earth am I bashing a “side”? I pointed out that Arlene was not even attempting to live up to the Ministerial code and know i’m suddenly attacking Unionism? Its the hypocrisy of the whole thing that annoys me, it would annoy me equally if it was the Sinn Fein, Alliance or Green pulling the same trick.

    I don’t support any side in this sham fight, the countries going to the dogs and all people care about is who beats the Orange/Green drum the hardest. If we fall for it again we deserve all we get.

  • Neil

    Parody account. Gotta be.

  • Neil

    The only poll I’ve seen had Naomi winning it by some margin. So what you have there is an opinion. Now, what do grown ups do when their opinions don’t match reality?

  • Katyusha

    See, this is interesting. We already had a democratic assembly in NI for most of the existence of the state. If we could be trusted to govern ourselves, we would still have a democratic assembly. What actually happened was politics condensed into the UUP continually circling the wagons and governing for only half of NI both politically and geographically. Tribal division was entrenched in NI long before the GFA, and the NI Parliament system actively encouraged it. The UUP actively discriminated against the minority community and made zero effort to develop the West of the province, leaving it instead to decay. They also buried the secular NI Labour party in a wagon-circling smear campaign. The outworkings of that system is responsible for many of the problems we have today. Have things changed? The readiness of the UUP to form electoral pacts with the DUP in Westminster elections would suggest not.

    Yes, we could have normal, non-sectarian politics. Yes, we could have a normal democratic society. When we had the chance, we screwed it up royally. Our parties cannot be trusted with democracy, which is the only reason we have our present system. It is contrived and results in perpetual stalemate and zero accountability – its only merit being that it’s immeasurably better than everything that went before. That you think it reasonable to go back to the form of government that effectively sank NI, both socially and economically, is astounding.

    In any case, “voluntary coalition” seems to be the new language of the TUV to mean “keep the Shinners out”. I have no question that the unionist parties will band together given the option, and would prefer a compliant lap-dog in the SDLP rather than having to work with the second biggest party in Stormont. In a majority rule system I would expect our smaller parties to disappear, with a combined unionist party (formed either through an official merger or the final demise of the UUP) forming the government and an abstentionist Sinn Fein. I can’t see such a system spelling anything other than disaster.

    I do not share any optimism that tribalism would disappear in either system. The demographic makeup of NI in the first place gives rise to unionist parties, who have found that raising the sceptre of a continual threat to the union is the most powerful election tactic in NI. We have had the chance to decide what the “majority” would be based on. Every single time, we have chosen flag-waving over economic policy.

    But on that note, it is worth noting that SF have rapidly moved into the position as the natural left-wing / quasi-socialist party in the RoI. For SF, in the south at least, economic fairness is becoming more relevant to the party than nationalism. Interesting times, if only it hadn’t meant the near-destruction of the grand Irish Labour party.

  • Equality and discrimination are both subjective terms, open to any level of interpretation.

    As a gay person living in Northern Ireland, I do not feel discriminated against by the law as I am treated almost identically in law to any other person by dent of the civil partnership act. the debate around whether to call it marriage is largely semantic to me and wont alter rights. (I feel targeting homophobic attitudes and bullying in schools etc would be a better use of time).

    We also have some of the most robust equality and discrimination legislation on the planet.

    So this idea that the DUP in Stormont are oppressing people and taking away their basic rights does not really hold up to robust scrutiny in my opinion. Its a clever piece of marketing by a number of the parties to take chunks out of rivals. The terms “equality” and “discrimination” are fatuous terms bandied about in NI like “hope” and “take back control” in other elections.

  • DOUG


  • DOUG

    That’s bullying. You’re bullying me.

  • DOUG


  • Msiegnaro

    Apologies, it was a flippant response by myself that was unnecessary.

  • Msiegnaro

    Form a new party?

  • lizmcneill

    NI, with an elite? LOL.

  • lizmcneill

    Would recommend Lego Batman, btw.

  • DOUG

    Serving all the people doesn’t mean she has to represent them, bow to them, fawn over them or agree with them but it does mean she has to act in what she thinks are the bests interests of ” all the people “, not just ” The People “

  • rg

    Oh yeah? Who says?

  • rg

    She’s not the First Minister, or hadn’t you realised it? I’m voting for her to represent me, not a bunch of Shinners.

  • Katyusha

    There certainly is not much “looking forward” if you’re looking forward to majority rule. I’m astonished anyone actually considers it a viable solution, especially given that out parties have failed to share power even with mandatory powersharing. In all honesty , what do you expect a voluntary coalition or majority-rule government to look like, especially given our current crop of political representatives? Do you honestly expect it to work?

    Time will tell if the UUP has changed, but they will need to demonstrate a commitment to ending electoral pacts with the DUP before I can believe them to have set aside tribal politics. Mike has taken them on a moderate turn, but they still aren’t prepared to put forward a joint strategy with SDLP or Alliance, and his own candidates balked at the very suggestion of transferring to the SDLP (which I was surprised by tbqh), and it’s not so long ago he tried to outflank the DUP on their republican bogeyman side, which led to the zombie executive. I’ll believe it when I see it. It wasn’t hard for Fine Gael and Labour to work together in election campaigns, presenting themselves as a coalition partnership and playing on their opposing strengths . Our parties are a long, long way off from that.

  • Ciaran O’Neill

    President Trump

  • AndyB

    That, very simply, is a false accusation, and totally without foundation.

  • AndyB

    Because the issue has been raised, and I was part of the audience last night and also last May when the same regime was applied (party members being vetted to exclude staff and priority being given to people who didn’t have questions chosen in May), I wrote to the BBC about the audience makeup.

    This is how they replied…

    “I’m aware of the suggestions that have been reported in the media that the audience was unbalanced or biased. I can assure you that the DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance party, SDLP and UUP were all allocated the same amount of seats in the audience, and were invited to send us names of party members who would like to participate in the audience.
    In the current election campaign, the First Minister has received criticism from all the other party leaders and it would not be unreasonable to expect the supporters of the other four parties to be equally critical.”

    There were a decent number of members of the public present last night not belonging to any political party, and I believe tickets were also issued to the smaller parties.

    For myself, I want to point out that the DUP and SF constitute minorities of Northern Ireland. They are certainly the most popular political unionist and nationalist/republican parties, but unless and until one or other party attracts more than 50% of the popular vote, it is only rational to expect that more than half of a studio audience will disagree with you on many issues.

  • Msiegnaro

    Look at the venom from them.

  • Barneyt

    And that is your right. You vote for you. However the elected are there to serve all.

  • Katyusha

    Exactly. If Northern Ireland was a normal country with a non-tribal society and non-sectarian politics, it wouldn’t be a problem. In reality, we tried it and it was a disaster.
    Now, given our current political parties can you outline what possible voluntary coalition or any other feasible government would be passable and feasible to you?

    If you want, we can leave it until votes are counted on Friday and then try to fashion a more suitable hypothetical voluntary coalition?

    Since you advocate it as a solution, I would be interested in seeing what type of government you think it would produce.

  • Mack

    orangeism. that’s your name in reverse

  • Katyusha

    Well then, if you expect voting patterns to change, you could outline how you expect them to change. I described above how I expect the voting blocs and parties to change in a voluntary coalition or majority rule scenario, and you did not dispute this model, nor propose your own. In fact I will qualify it by saying that SF are vulnerable on both their left and right flanks from potential interlopers, and if the UUP were able to stand on a genuine cross-community ticket it might stop the creation of a single unionist bloc; which itself isn’t a far-out scenario given that the minority community which drove the coalescence of unionism behind the UUP originally is even larger now.

    You are the one proposing voluntary coalition or majority rule, and yet you have given absolutely no indication of what you expect a government formed by such a system to look like. In what way do you expect NI to change if such system of voluntary coalition is introduced? What do you think the effect would be on our politics? What type of coalition government do you think would be feasible, stable and fair, that is likely to result from such a system? Have you thought this through at all?

    Do you think, for example, that a DUP-UUP coalition would be fair? Or a Unionist majority government, with a unified party?
    Do you think a UUP-SDLP coalition minority government would be stable?
    Do you think a DUP minority government, with confidence and supply, would be either of those things.
    Do you think a grand DUP-UUP-Alliance-SDLP coaltion would survive a SF opposition which so successfully demolished the Irish Labour party when they were junior coalition partners and were forced to implement unpopular policies?
    Do you think a SF-UUP-SDLP-Alliance coalition would be fair if the DUP were returned as the largest party, even after their reputation has been damaged in the public eye as in the latest scandal?

    Does some magic trick occur and we suddenly produce left-and.right parties? Does the SDLP regain the “Social Democratic and Labour” tag of its name and become a secular socialist party, as it was originally intended to be?

    How does this work, OTF?

  • Katyusha

    I disagree, actually. I don’t think we have nothing to lose. I do not take our present stability and parity lightly (I would say equality, but the fact NI is the only region in the British Isles where gay and lesbian couples cannot marry prevents me from doing so). We have a huge amount to lose and we should not treat the advances we have made as a society recklessly. We will not see a better government returned on Friday, but what we have had for the last 10-15 years has been better than what we had for the previous eighty years. In any case, I expect Stormont will only last another three cycles or so of the current stalemate and then its back to Direct Rule we go; if we’re not heading there already.

    What you are proposing is not radical; it is something we have already tried, and and it was a disaster. I am therefore interested in why you think it would be a success now when it was a failure when it was tried before. I have never seen or heard anyone actually advocate a return to majority rule before, so I’m simply asking you what you expect to happen and why do you think it would work. You haven’t been able to explain why such a system would be successful applied to contemporary NI when it wasn’t pre-Sunningdale, nor have you been able to articulate the type of government you would like to see from such a system, or the effects that it might have on NI as a whole.

    I agree, it would be nice if NI were a normal country. Evidence suggests that it is not. It has been plagued with strife and economic malaise for its entire history, much of it the direct result of an NI government elected under the system that you are proposing. Given the behaviour of the largest party in NI on numerous issues but especially its attitude towards minority rights and interests, I will take some convincing that NI’s political class can be trusted with majority rule. Protecting the rights and interests of minorities from the will of the majority is also a vital function of government.

  • mooncoin

    An opportunistic Lundy . What century are you living in ? In the word of John Mc Enroe ….. you just cannot be serious .

  • SeaanUiNeill

    OtF, it’s not “the past” but a very selective “memory” of that past, evident in all quarters, which is the problem. The past itself, dispassionatley appraoched, offers a range of explanations about where, for example, reckless short termism leads, and in a similar manner to personal life experience, offers an agregate of earned knowledge from which maturity grows. History is very far from being “Bunk”………

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Or perhaps she is brass necking it, confidant that she had the support of her party before Christmas. And, in remaining as FM, could have possible influence when the enquiry took place.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Msiegnaro, negative and angry, perhaps, but akin to Swift’s “sæva Indignatio”……