Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill suffer a night to forget in their final election screen test

‘Big two’ leaders easily outperformed by rivals from smaller parties

By Suzanne Breen

The leaders of the five big parties went head to head in a ding-dong debate on BBC Northern Ireland last night with Arlene Foster coming under renewed pressure from her political rivals.

The DUP leader was on the receiving end of a string of incisive one-liners from Mike Nesbitt, Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long.

Mrs Foster was unable to successfully rebut their criticisms or land any blows herself.

Under likely orders not to appear stern or aloof, she smiled as her opponents and members of the audience laid into her over 'cash for ash' and her record in government.

However, DUP insiders will be relieved that she did not lose her temper despite the verbal bombardment.

Although the election is billed as a DUP-Sinn Fein showdown, ironically it was only Michelle O'Neill who failed to throw a decent political punch in the hour-long debate and whose limitations on the big stage were exposed.

Both Mrs O'Neill and Mrs Foster wore royal blue while Mike Nesbitt opted for a baby blue tie.

Although polls apart politically from Donald Trump, Colum Eastwood favoured the US President's signature red tie. Naomi Long opted for a casual look in a purple cardigan.

The BBC wisely abandoned opening and closing statements and jumped in at the deep end with questions.

The first was on RHI, and presenter Noel Thompson went to Mrs Foster. Obviously nervous, the DUP leader fluffed her opening, referring to claims that the botched energy scheme would cost the taxpayer £500,000 rather than £500m

She kept her answer short, saying that the public had heard "political smears, numerous allegations but we've been devoid of facts" which would come out in the public inquiry.

Mrs Foster insisted that others were pontificating with "the benefit of hindsight".

Less than three minutes into the debate came the first of her several mentions of the RRA - "radical republican agenda".

Mid-way through the showdown, the audience began laughing at such references.

Later, Foster said with sarcasm: "I can see we have a very balanced audience in tonight".

Mrs O'Neill started strongly but, as usual, spoke far too quickly. What may have originally been endearing is now just plain irritating, and it appears that she is repeating her lines rote-like.

There are only so many times you can listen to someone saying they have "a good heart" and "that's what I'm about".

Mrs O'Neill interrupted others too much without proceeding to score any points. She needs to start thinking more speedily on her feet.

When Mrs Foster remarked during one interruption, "What about a wee bit of respect, Michelle?", she did quip back "What about respect for the public, Arlene?" - however, it came several seconds too late for maximum impact.

Colum Eastwood was head-and-shoulders above O'Neill in detail and delivery on RHI.

He gave his usual polished performance, but so far he has not been able to translate that into support for his party at the polls.

Mike Nesbitt gave a statesmanlike performance and one of the best one-liners of the night when, in response to the DUP leader raising fears of a Sinn Fein First Minister, he quipped: "The people voted for you last time and they got Martin McGuinness, and he wrote your resignation letter."

But it was the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long who combined passion with authority in the debate.

She provided a powerful critique of the DUP's handling of RHI and claimed that MLAs "were lied to in the chamber".

The second question centred on the likelihood of cross-community transfers in tomorrow's election.

Mr Nesbitt said he had "no regrets" about revealing that he would give a second preference to the SDLP.

When confronted with opposition to his stance within his party, he insisted that his colleagues supported what he said. "Danny Kennedy doesn't, Jim Rodgers doesn't," presenter Noel Thompson replied.

"Leadership involves leading," Nesbitt shot back.

The bromance between the SDLP and UUP leaders was still on, with Eastwood declaring: "What Mike said was very brave and the response from some people was very unfortunate.

"Those people are behind where the people of Northern Ireland are."

He said the DUP leader's unionism was "so strong and so secure" that she was putting out leaflets with a darkened image of Gerry Adams' photo and was talking about him more than she was about her own party.

Mrs Foster batted off the inferences and said: "If you vote for Mike, you will get Michelle".

"What's wrong with me?" O'Neill interjected.

The UUP leader appeared most uncomfortable during the night when asked why he would not transfer his vote to Naomi Long in East Belfast.

"I've no doubt I will," he said, looking sheepishly shell-shocked.

The winners for me were Naomi Long, followed by Colum Eastwood and Mike Nesbitt.

I judged them well ahead of Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill - but that certainly does not mean that the people will see it the same when they vote tomorrow.

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