It’s a pity the BBC put this debate on so late at night because it had the capacity to influence the election.
The formula of points raised by the audience and pressed home by Mark Carruthers worked well and opened the politicians up before they debated with each other. What emerged was a two-tier executive, with the UUP and SDLP in opposition in all but name.
Despite DUP posters and literature emphasising the need to “win” against Sinn Fein, the comfort between the two parties was obvious.
Mr Carruthers asked Martin McGuinness whether Sinn Fein voters should transfer to the DUP and was told “they have the opportunity to vote for whatever party they want”.
Once the battle lines were drawn it became easy for the SDLP and UUP to score points by alleging a “cosy consensus”.
However, you were left wondering if, as Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson suggested, a consensus between the two big parties was not the only way to run Stormont under the present agreements.
The SDLP and UUP had the initiative in the last half of the programme, but they didn’t have it all their own way. Mr Elliott was on the back foot explaining his relationship with the Tories in view of his opposition to cuts. He dealt with an awkward situation reasonably well, saying that it hadn’t worked out and that from now on he would only co-operate with them at Westminster.
All the same, it left him open to Mr Robinson’s barb that he couldn’t agree with anybody — not the Tories, not the DUP nor Sinn Fein either.
Mr Elliott was also unable to state clearly whether he would serve in an administration with a Sinn Fein First Minister. He answered by saying that he would not serve as deputy First Minister — something that won’t come up because he isn’t fielding enough candidates.
However, it is a challenge to Mr Robinson to pull the plug on powersharing if Sinn Fein tops the poll.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness looked tired at times. Mr McGuinness in particular repeated formulas and stories from previous broadcasts, almost like John Hume’s single transferable speech. However, it has been a long campaign and there was little doubt at the end of this that these two men will be in charge of the next three years.
Voters now have a choice between supporting the inner wheel of government (made up of Alliance, the DUP and Sinn Fein) or for the internal opposition of SDLP and UUP.