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DUP train sights on Education portfolio as leaders from 'Big five' parties lock horns in UTV Assembly Election debate

By Noel McAdam

Published 14/04/2016

Arlene Foster, DUP
Arlene Foster, DUP
Foyle: Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein
Mike Nesbitt, UUP
Colum Eastwood, SDLP
David Ford, Alliance

The DUP has strongly suggested that it could take the education ministry in the next Executive after years of Sinn Fein being left in charge.

First Minister Arlene Foster indicated that her party might opt for education rather than control of the Stormont purse strings at the Department of Finance.

Aside from a few periods of Direct Rule, Sinn Fein has been in charge of education since responsibility was devolved to Stormont in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

If, as expected, the DUP remains the largest party in the Assembly, party leader Mrs Foster will have first pick when departmental portfolios are handed out.

In the first major television event of the current election campaign, broadcast on UTV last night, Mrs Foster said her party had always given priority to the finance and personnel department in the past.

"I am not saying that this time," she said.

She said people were also keen for her party to take control of agriculture, which has also been in Sinn Fein hands, and the new Department of the Economy - but "unfortunately" it could not take them all.

Mrs Foster took centre stage flanked by her main election rival, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Alliance leader David Ford and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

In terms of the election contest, it was the first major television test for the two newest leaders - Mr Eastwood and Mrs Foster - and while there were robust exchanges the programme produced no knockout blows.

Mrs Foster, however, said that since the 'Fresh Start' deal reached between her party and Sinn Fein last November, relations at Stormont between the two biggest parties were probably better than at any time since devolution was restored in 2007.

"I want to build on that," she said.

Mr McGuinness said he believed the opportunity now existed to move into the next phase of the peace process, focused on reconciliation.

Mr McGuinness and Mr Eastwood, who are facing each other in the Foyle constituency, clashed over the question of the 11-plus.

The SDLP leader said Mr McGuinness had failed to fulfil his promise to abolish the 11-plus, with primary school pupils now facing up to five tests.

But Mr McGuinness said the 11-plus as an official government examination had gone - the current tests were being run by grammar schools.

And he said the grammars were now taking pupils who had not taken tests as well as those who had, adding: "That's how ludicrous it has become."

Mr Nesbitt argued Mr McGuinness had actually conceded that Sinn Fein had lost control of the state education system.

Mr McGuinness said the province needed an education system "like Finland, which does not have selection."

The programme opened with questions from presenter Marc Mallett on 'the state of Stormont'.

Mr Nesbitt read from a 2007 DUP manifesto claiming it had rectified the flaws of the Good Friday Agreement, which he said now "rings a little bit hollow".

Mr Ford said people angry about the political failure and point-scoring at Stormont should "not just sit back and complain about it" but vote for change.

Mr McGuinness said SF and the DUP had now shared power for two full Assembly terms without Stormont collapsing, compared to the administration shared by the UUP and the SDLP which fell three times.

Mr Eastwood said it was "fantastic" the political process had come so far but people should not now be expected to just be grateful. "People out there want us now to deliver," he said.

Mr Nesbitt, Mr McGuinness and Mr Eastwood all agreed that a woman recently convicted of buying so-called 'abortion pills' online should not have been prosecuted.

The subject produced the most serious clash of the night between the unionist leaders.

Mr Nesbitt said the DUP was guilty of a "political ploy" in setting up a panel to examine the issue which will take six months. It was a blocking mechanism "by any other name", he said.

Mrs Foster retorted: "It's called democracy. It is called talking to other parties to find a way forward.

"I am sure Mike doesn't think that is the way you do politics."

In a lighter section, the leaders were asked who should portray them on the silver screen.

It was an easy question for Mr McGuinness, who is due to be played by Colm Meaney in a forthcoming movie about the relationship between him and former first minister Lord Bannside, better known as Rev Ian Paisley. The Deputy First Minister said he was happy with Meaney in the role, "though I think I am slimmer".

Mr Ford joked he wanted someone as good-looking as himself to play him in a movie, "perhaps Liam Neeson".

Mrs Foster opted for Indecent Proposal star Demi Moore, quipping they had the same figure, while Mr Eastwood went for Fifty Shades of Grey hunk Jamie Dornan.

Dressed in a bright red jacket and navy dress, the DUP leader sartorially outshone the four dark suits spread out on each side of her. But although she has long experience of television interviews, she at times appeared a little nervous and fluffed some lines - perhaps because this was her first major TV debate as DUP leader and First Minister.

The Deputy First Minister was first to go on the attack, interrupting to go on the offensive against his main election rival, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, over his party's failure to back the 'Fresh Start' proposals. He claimed that Dublin officials had told Sinn Fein the SDLP was not prepared to agree to any deal in the negotiations last autumn.

A man well used to the ways of UTV as its former news anchorman, the Ulster Unionist leader appeared the most relaxed of the five leaders. He bantered during advert breaks and chided presenter Marc Mallet after he had to re-record the introduction to the programme. "I wouldn't have fluffed the opening," he said.

As the new kid on the block, the SDLP leader could have been expected to be most nervous but instead delivered a confident and fluent performance, continually rising to challenges thrown out by his more experienced rival Martin McGuinness. He was also first to grab the hand of presenter Marc Mallet at the end and came across as serious but not stodgy.

Although he is normally less confrontational in the five-way studio debates than other party leaders, Mr Ford interjected to point out the DUP and SDLP had wanted to "tighten up" legislation on abortion. The Alliance leader was in good humour too, joking about the amount of studio make-up required to cover his forehead.

Belfast Telegraph

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