Seven-way TV debate would resemble Take Me Out... but 'with a different connotation' if Sinn Fein takes part, MPs joke
A seven-way TV election debate would have so many participants it'd resemble the gameshow Take Me Out, Naomi Long MP has joked.
But it would have "a slightly different connotation" if Sinn Fein took part, quipped Jeffrey Donaldson in a House of Commons debate.
The DUP man drew nervous laughter from other MPs as he jested about Sinn Fein's links to the IRA.
He said: "The honourable member from East Belfast (Alliance MP Naomi Long) from a sedentary position said it would be a bit like the game show Take Me Out.
"I'm not so sure I would want to be on such a programme with Sinn Fein taking part because 'take me out' might have a slightly different connotation.
"But if Sinn Fein were taking part perhaps the somehow that is more appropriate is Blankety Blank since they don't take their seats in this House."
Northern Ireland's MPs were speaking in Parliament about the TV debate, from which the DUP is excluded - despite the inclusion of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru.
Nigel Dodds and Ian Paisley warned that voters across the UK need to know where smaller political parties stand on national issues such as defence spending and healthcare - because they could determine who walks into Number 10.
The Democratic Unionists said in the context of a hung parliament come May, which polls suggest is likely, the DUP could play a crucial role.
To avoid a repeat situation in the future, the party wants an independent commission to be established that agrees the rules well in advance of an election rather than in the heat of the campaign.
Mr Paisley said: "This party, its members, could actually have a say after the 8 May on who walks into Downing Street as prime minister.
"That being the case, isn't it only right and proper that the national audience know where smaller parties like my party stand on the issues of national defence, on the issue of the union, on the issue of grammar school education, on issues of healthcare, taxation, the cost of living and defence spending?
"The public are entitled to know that and that will help them decide which party should help create ... the next government."
Mr Dodds added: "We are part of the UK, we play a very significant role in terms of this House. The DUP has eight MPs.
"They deserve to have their voices heard on behalf of the people they represent. They should not be excluded, especially in the context where the DUP could actually play a much more significant role on 8 May than some of the parties that are actually going to be included in the debates.
"So people need to know across the UK where we stand on national issues."
The DUP was not concerned about participating in a national debate only involving Ofcom's big four, Mr Dodds explained.
But the situation changed when the broadcasters - whom he accused of presiding over a "debacle" and of "making it up as they go along" - decided to invite the SNP and Plaid Cymru, he went on.
He branded their changing position "completely unsatisfactory" and "deeply disappointing". He also said it showed "contempt" for people of Northern Ireland.
Mr Dodds said: "You cannot have one rule for some, chosen arbitrarily at the whim of unaccountable broadcasters who decide what is best for everyone else, and have a different rule for Northern Ireland. I think that is totally unacceptable.
"When the broadcasters decided they would invite the SNP from Scotland and Plaid Cymru from Wales to be involved in this national debate then that opens up the question as to why do you include a party that only stands in Scotland, a party that only stands in Wales but you don't then include the DUP which has more MPs and votes than Plaid for instance and more MPs than the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP put together?
"The whole thing is ludicrous."
The BBC, which Mr Dodds said had a key responsibility to remain impartial as the public broadcaster, came under particular fire.
Fellow DUP MP David Simpson (Upper Bann) accused the corporation of "blatant arrogance".
The SDLP's Mark Durkan (Foyle) criticised David Cameron for issuing his "final offer" of one seven-way debate on March 23 through his Downing Street director of communications Craig Oliver.
Mr Durkan said: "I don't think it was particularly good when we saw last week, for instance, headlines that were saying that Downing Street has now issued its 'final offer' to the broadcaster.
"Downing Street, that's the office of Prime Minister.
"It's one thing if it's Conservative Party headquarters saying, that it's the Conservative Party in its campaign, but it was Downing Street and the letter came from Downing Street from someone who is paid on the civil service payroll as director of communications in Downing Street on that basis.
"And I really don't believe the broadcasters should allow themselves to be drawn into this situation in which the Prime Minister and others have played them.
"But this is an unseemly mess which has ended up doing nobody any credit, none of the parties, the political process, or even broadcast journalism has been done any credit by the way in which this debacle is playing out."
Alliance MP Naomi Long said "Pandora's box" had been opened as there is now no clear rationale for who should be included in the debates.
It has led to a situation where any party could be aggrieved at not being included and any real debate or exchange of ideas will be "absolutely stifled", she said.
Ms Long told MPs: "So I believe that the problem is that having opened the Pandora's box, no one now appears clear as to how they want to close it again.
"I'm making it clear, I am not standing here to make a pitch to be included in the national debate.
"I am not standing here either making a pitch for the SDLP or the DUP or Plaid Cymru or the SNP to be included in the national debate.
"And I say that not because I want to see any of our parties excluded, but simply this - if the purpose of these debates is to engage the public, is to make the public interested in what the next government and the leadership, particularly prime minister of the next government, might look like, what we will end up with is a panel so large and unwieldy that any real debate, any real exchange of ideas, any really exchange of ideas will be absolutely stifled.
"Therefore, what we need to do is return to a situation where the panel size is reasonable and where the rationale is clearly, legally, and fairly justifiable."
DUP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) said the situation was "primarily a problem caused by the broadcasters".
He said: "Whatever the reason for it, we now do have a shambles which is unbecoming and which I don't believe is doing politics any good."
He added: "Even at this late stage there ought to be some attempt to resolve this issue, either by accepting you include all of the parties which have got a sizable representation which will be standing nationally and regionally or else you find a way of narrowing it down. But you cannot have the worst of all worlds where you include some and you exclude the others."
Belfast Telegraph Digital