Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

European candidates up for the fight in TV debate, but no knock-out blows were landed

Northern Ireland's Euro election candidates gather together in the Ulster Television studio's for a live debate this evening ahead of Thursday's vote. l/r Jim Nicholson (Ulster Unionists), Alex Atwood (SDLP), Dianne Dodds (DUP) Yvette Schapiro (Ulster Television) Martina Anderson (Sinn Fein) Anna Lo (Alliance) & Jim Allister (TUV)
Northern Ireland's Euro election candidates gather together in the Ulster Television studio's for a live debate this evening ahead of Thursday's vote. l/r Jim Nicholson (Ulster Unionists), Alex Atwood (SDLP), Dianne Dodds (DUP) Yvette Schapiro (Ulster Television) Martina Anderson (Sinn Fein) Anna Lo (Alliance) & Jim Allister (TUV)

Let's be positive – 10 Northern Ireland politicians in two teams discussed current issues for nearly an hour without a mention of flags, the past or sectarian issues of any kind.

It was a mannerly discussion entirely focused on European issues. The divisions were over whether we should stay in the EU in the long-term or not, and that may be the best way to classify the parties.

Broadly, Sinn Fein, Alliance, SDLP, Greens and NI21 were for staying almost no matter what. Let's call them Group A. This is a change for Sinn Fein, which opposed entry to the European Community in the first place but has now come round. It could have a strong team in Europe with four MEPs; three MEPs from the Republic and one from Northern Ireland all working to a common agenda.

The UUP, Conservatives and DUP could be counted as Group B – all mildly eurosceptic, favouring a review of our position, a renegotiation of the terms, and a referendum. The DUP's Diane Dodds described her party as "the original eurosceptic party" and said that as things stand, without reform, she would favour withdrawal. She would "be out in a heartbeat", as Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson put it, clicking her fingers for emphasis.

That leaves Ukip and the TUV as the hardcore eurosceptics in Group C. Both believe the EU is both impossible to reform and damaging economically. There was little to choose between them, but Mr Allister of the TUV was more persuasive, more eloquent and more on top of the issues than Mr Reilly of Ukip.

Further reading:

UTV Euro debate: The verdict on how European election candidates performed

EU's role as cash cow to subsidise Northern Ireland's farmers goes unchallenged in pre-election TV debate 

A logical voter would probably choose group A, B or C, and then transfer within it. Of course, as several candidates pointed out, this isn't a referendum on EU membership. It is an election for who will represent us in the European Parliament and promote our interests there as long as we are members.

On that measure, all of the big six looked pretty capable. But there were no knockout punches. It is hard to have that with six people debating in so short a time, interspersed with short films to introduce each question.

The nearest we got to a banana skin was when Alex Attwood got his billions and his millions mixed up as he described the inflow of European funds in the coming years. He recovered nicely – it was £2.5bn over seven years – and he did leave the impression of someone who knew the issues.

Without major highs and lows it is hard to score the candidates on anything other than delivery.

All performed well – you got the impression that any one with a chance of being elected would know how to put up a good fight in Brussels.

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