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New dawn unlikely after humdrum television leaders' debate promises same old story

No real surprises, no defining moments, but women appear to run show

By Fionola Meredith

Scheduling the election debate for just after Coronation Street was presumably an attempt to keep people watching.

But if viewers did stay tuned in, the hour-long debate - hosted by Marc Mallett and featuring all five leaders of the larger parties - lacked many of the qualities that make soap operas gripping.

Sure, there was plenty of argy-bargy, sniping, and bitter back-and-forth. That was to be expected.

But there were no real surprises, no defining moments, no edge-of-the-seat stuff. Everything felt a bit tired and effortful.

As Mallett said, this was a snap election that no one predicted.

But it's also an election - despite the rage over RHI - that few people really wanted.

The electorate is experiencing the tedium of going back to the polls barely nine months after we cast our votes last time. And for all the passion assumed for the cameras, sometimes it seemed as though the party leaders secretly felt the same.

Naomi Long, the Alliance leader, put on the spunkiest show. She got stuck in there, calling on voters to "take a stand against scandal" and choose their candidates on the basis of "openness, transparency and accountability".

In a rare moment of levity, she slapped Mike Nesbitt down over previous Ulster Unionist electoral pacts, describing the UUP as "the Lothario of Northern Ireland politics" thanks to its habit of "hopping in and out of bed with other parties".

It says a lot for the quality of the debate that you felt grateful for this mild and clearly scripted quip.

Long was also the only leader who smiled broadly in the opening introductions. The others looked variously stiff, queasy, brusque or vacant.

Arlene Foster, meanwhile, seemed to see herself as a harbinger of doom. Only her own party or Sinn Fein can win the election, she claimed, so it will be a choice between "Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein" or "your DUP".

Indeed, that terrible spectre "Gerry Adams' Sinn Fein" was repeatedly invoked by Foster throughout the debate, despite the fact that she was standing beside new Northern SF leader Michelle O'Neill.

But then Foster knows that Adams has a name, and a brand, and a reputation that is far more likely to strike fear into unionist hearts than the smiley O'Neill, and so she played that card, again and again.

The election was not about RHI, oh no. That was just an excuse, Foster said: it was really about Gerry Adams - ah, there he was again, like a sinister bearded Sooty - and his plan to introduce a "radical republican agenda" in Northern Ireland.

But O'Neill was having none of it, of course. In her usual rapid-fire style she claimed that the RHI scandal was "signed, sealed and delivered by the DUP", and that the election was indeed all about that issue.

She said Sinn Fein would go into post-election negotiations with "goodwill and a good heart", but she reiterated that she could not support Foster as First or Deputy First Minister until the public inquiry concluded.

"You can only be in government with people who have integrity and respect, and who can command public confidence," she said.

Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, got quite animated about Europe, warning that "if you vote Arlene, if you vote Michelle, you get Theresa".

And when he said he wanted to defend Northern Ireland against a hard Tory Brexit - "the biggest challenge to face us since partition" - he sounded like he meant it. Whether he's capable of doing anything about it is another question.

Props can occasionally be handy in this sort of situation, and Nesbitt hit on the cunning wheeze of illustrating the Executive's failure to deliver a white paper on Brexit by holding up - yes, you've guessed it - a piece of white paper.

He fumbled for it in advance while he was speaking, and produced it with an awkward, slightly embarrassed flourish, like a mangy rabbit out of a hat.

But, like Long's quip about Lotharios, at least it broke up the monotony a little.

Actually, one thing that really was (mildly) interesting was the configuration of the line-up - Nesbitt and Eastwood at either end, O'Neill, Foster and Long in the middle - and the dynamic it produced.

We may not have the exact statistics on possession of the ball, as we do for big football matches, but it felt like most of the action was interplay between the women, with the male leaders interjecting from the outside.

A sign of change and progress? Perhaps.

But the safe money says that, come the election, it'll be same as it ever was.

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