UTV Election Debate: A win for Eastwood with Long and Robinson taking aim at one another

Representatives from the five main parties gathered at UTV today in the first local debate ahead of the General Election on July 4th. John Finucane for Sinn Fein, Colum Eastwood for the SDLP, Naomi Long for the Alliance Party, Robbie Butler for the UUP, and Gavin Robinson for the DUP.

The debate was divided into three themes: influence at Westminster, Executive finances and a border poll.

An interesting aspect of the debate was some of the participants’ different and laid-back strategies. John Finucane’s approach was very much like his party’s in this campaign, trying to stay about the fray, making positive statements and making no real attempts to take on any of his opponents. Robbie Butler had to be brought into the exchanges by Vikki Hawthorne constantly, and he appeared to struggle to make his presence felt in the debate.

This was not an issue for Eastwood, Long and Robinson, who were the main speakers throughout the debate and were happy to mix it up. Eastwood was strong on influence at Westminster and the constitutional debate. He was eager to jump in, taking on Long, Finucane and Robinson at various moments during the broadcast.

For Long and Robinson, this seemed like an East Belfast hustings. Robinson had some funny lines about Naomi not attending Ireland’s Future last weekend and saying that participating in the unity conversation would be as attractive as having his leg severed. Long was also strong in defending her position against charges from Eastwood and Robinson. Her strong point was her arguments about Brexit and the DUP’s role in the current government.

It was the dullest part of the debate, but it deserves mention. When all were asked about Executive finances, the answers across the piece were pretty uninspiring and did not give the viewer confidence that any of them had a plan for getting the budget back into shape.

This campaign has been much more low-key than 2017 or 2019. There is no overarching narrative or issues giving the debate focus, and it shows. No participant will go away from that having done a bad job. Nobody dropped the ball, and they all got their talking points in, although some were better at this than others.

The next debate will hosted on the BBC this Thursday by Tara Mills.

Scores for each participant

Colum Eastwood 8.5/10

Gavin Robinson 7.5/10

Naomi Long 7.5/10

John Finucane 7/10

Robbie Butler 6/10


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