Belfast Telegraph

Sorry show as only one female chief in Northern Ireland TV leaders' debate

By Suzanne Breen

Northern Ireland has three female political leaders — but it was a sorry show when only one of them turned up last night for the BBC’s election debate.

Naomi Long had almost fainted the day before at the UTV equivalent and, hours ahead of her encounter with Noel Thompson, she had buried her colleague of over 20 years, councillor Mervyn Jones.

Still, she made it to the studio to argue her case.

The DUP and Sinn Fein leaders were nowhere to be seen.

We were told that Michelle O’Neill had lost her voice, which given how often she uses it, isn’t perhaps surprising.

And Arlene seems to have decided that the Theresa May approach to leadership debates is the wisest.

Avoid at all costs.

Still, Jeffrey Donaldson was a strong substitute.

He gave a far feistier performance than Nigel Dodds had on UTV.

Although John O’Dowd is a good foot taller, wee Jeffrey rose to the occasion.

He produced a photo of Sinn Fein’s star South Belfast candidate, Mairtin O Muilleoir, with UDA head honcho, Jackie McDonald, and he raised the matter of Shankill bomber, Sean Kelly, canvassing for the party in North Belfast.

“Imagine (Kelly) landing on your doorstep!” he exclaimed.

That very spectre will secure extra votes in the constituency for the DUP.

It was probably no bad thing for Sinn Fein that Michelle O’Neill was unwell.

John O’Dowd made his presence felt and tackled the DUP over its election endorsement by loyalist paramilitaries.

“The DUP use the UDA during elections and the UDA use the DUP in government,” he declared in what was the soundbite of the night for Sinn Fein.

The Upper Bann MLA lambasted SDLP MPs over their House of Commons attendance rates.

He was a little wrong-footed when Noel Thompson then provided statistics — 78% attendance for Mark Durkan, 80% for Margaret Ritchie, and 38% for Alasdair McDonnell.

“I just want to give you the facts,” Noel explained.

It took the wind from O’Dowd’s sails, but the Sinn Fein man still had a good night.

He made no apologies for his party bringing down the Executive over “corruption at the heart of government”.

Colum Eastwood always looks and sounds superb in these debates. While he is very much on the green side of his party, he never shirks from challenging Sinn Fein.

Time and time again, he hammered home the fact that while the Shinners don’t take their seats at Westminster, they’re quite content to take their expenses. SDLP MPs would go to London and join a “progressive alliance” to support a Labour government while Sinn Fein’s abstentionism made them “proxy Tories”, he said.

But Eastwood’s one foolish line came when he remarked that Sinn Fein sat in the European Parliament with “a bunch of communists”. In working-class nationalist areas, where the Shinners last year shed support to People Before Profit, the idea of them being friends with lefties will actually give Michelle O’Neill’s party street cred.

And while Eastwood mocked the “fringe” Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, it has on occasions secured more votes than the SDLP.

Naomi Long was as articulate as ever. When Jeffrey Donaldson was asked if he would talk to Isis and replied that he didn’t “see any point” in doing so, Long quipped: “Aye, no votes!”

But the Alliance leader didn’t secure an entree into the argy-bargy compared to previous occasions.

Whereas Mike Nesbitt owned TV debates, his successor knows that it’s not his forte. Robin Swann’s strategy was to get through the night being as inoffensive as possible.

He was a tad underwhelming, but the studio audience seemed to warm to him and gave encouraging applause as would befit a new pupil in the school play.

This was a sparkier show than Monday night, but the DUP and Sinn Fein still held prime position on the stage. They’ll be hoping the same is true after Thursday.

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