The organisers explained at the start of the night that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had agreed to attend and was listed in the paper programme. They understood that he was no longer available and, as well as avoiding empty chairing the party, they offered no opinion on why the DUP had not organised a replacement when they had sent representatives over many previous years.
The DUP absence took much of the bite out of the evening. In some ways it prevented issues becoming bogged down in ‘us and them’ debates and created a better quality of discussion. However, it did remove nearly all drama and excitement from the community hustings, and removed the exposure of exactly which aspect of issues most distinguishes Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Noel Thompson chaired the event (reminding the audience at home and online that he was there in a personal capacity) and stirred things up among the panellists:
- Patricia Mac Bride (former Victims Commissioner)
- Ray Bassett (former Irish Ambassador to Canada who recently retired after a long career in the Department for Foreign Affairs (DFA) and was called unpatriotic for suggesting that Ireland had made a mistake with its position on Brexit of not negotiating and accepting )
- Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin’s ‘Queen of the North’ as Noel Thompson quipped)
- Alex Kane (former UUP spin doctor, and not Jeffrey Donaldson)
The main questions:
- Is America a threat to world peace?
- Does Brexit make a United Ireland more likely?
- As a young person looking into the future, what does the panel think about the impact of Brexit on children’s rights and how can politicians engage on the issue?
- Can there be an amnesty for British soldiers?
- Should there be any limits to freedom of speech? Should Kevin Myers have been sacked?
- Should there be a Sign Language Act to protect rights?
- Is Arlene ever challenged about her view of victims?
It was all rather jolly and good natured at the front table. There was little argy bargy between panellists, and instead it was audience who picked arguments with their utterances (with Jude Collins eliciting an apology after scolding the ex-Ambassador for using ‘Ireland’ when he surely meant ‘the 26 counties’).
Noel Thompson kept the pace with his robust interruptions that pressed panellists for clarifications and at times created conversations that drilled into issues rather than allowing passive answers to bore.
Michelle O’Neill spoke confidently – a sure-footed performance, that demonstrated that she could listen and reason – but wasn’t rewarded with the gratuitous applause that might have been expected at this Sinn Féin heartland event. At times, Patricia Mac Bride seemed to be the figure whose rhetoric and answers chimed best with the audience. And she was the one panellist who was able to sign the start of her answer to the signed question about a Sign Language Act (that the whole panel agreed on).