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Dodds shows he's an old hand while O'Neill is strangely subdued in TV debate



The leaders with UTV presenter Marc Mallett

The leaders with UTV presenter Marc Mallett

©William Cherry / Presseye

The leaders with UTV presenter Marc Mallett

Elections in Northern Ireland have often been held under the shadow of violence. This is the first time that one has been overshadowed by killings that have nothing to do with us.

Naturally, the worrying security situation across the water was the subject of the first question.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, immediately agreed what was happening in English cities was terrible, so it was, insisting that she was totally against "extreme terrorism".

Presumably this was to distinguish it in her own mind from what she regards as the much nicer terrorism of the IRA; but O'Neill didn't even try to explain what made one bomb different from another.

She simply said we "don't need to draw comparison".

It was an oddly lacklustre answer considering that she must have known the question would arise and been prepped accordingly.

Nigel Dodds, who was standing in for his party leader Arlene Foster whilst she was in France for a First World War commemoration, had a message for Michelle: "Stop eulogising terrorists!"

He liked the phrase so much that he used it four times in a row.

Dodds had certainly eaten his Weetabix. He was passionate, loud, involved in every debate, providing an effective reminder that he's been doing this sort of thing for years.

The old trooper knows how to get a message across - in this case that the Union which really matters is the one with the UK, not Europe.

The only thing stopping him from being the most aggressive person in the room was Naomi Long of the Alliance Party.

She was remarkably bellicose for the leader of Ulster's most studiously inoffensive party.

Normally, Alliance spokespersons are like mild mannered Geography teachers calming down a rowdy class. Naomi was right in the middle of the ruck, throwing punches.

Dodds had a message for her too, namely that she was "not a unionist". They had a few run ins during the hour, but then these two actually have a stake in this poll, as they're standing to be MPs. That jibe was clearly pitched at voters in East Belfast, where Long's fighting to take back the seat from his party colleague.

The dominance of local politics was obvious too from SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who repeatedly took aim at Sinn Fein for not taking its seats at Westminster.

This is a party desperate not to allow its dwindling tally of seats to fall into the greedy hands of republicans.

Eastwood was fizzing with restless energy, like a young prize fighter who wanted to be in the ring, but kept being sent back into the corner. He could hardly stand still, and even said at one point that the SDLP was the most pro-EU party "in these islands". Any watching Liberal Democrats must have been furious. They're still fighting to thwart Brexit. Colum's accepted it will happen, he just wants a border poll afterwards so he can get back in the EU as quickly as possible.

Curiously, no one had a pop at Arlene Foster for not showing up for this debate, but then it was an odd debate in many ways, not least because O'Neill was so quiet. Dodds flew feet first into every issue, but she seemed content to tick off a few bogey words ("Nama, RHI, dark money") to keep the republican faithful happy.

The positions on the UTV set were drawn at random, but by the end it felt fitting that the draw had put the new Ulster Unionists leader, Robin Swann, in the centre, because that seemed to be the position he wanted to occupy politically as well as physically.

He spoke with calm sense, if without great charisma, and his ultimate message was that voters wanted "Northern Ireland politicians sorting out Northern Ireland problems."

Whether they still wanted that after watching this debate is another matter altogether.

Belfast Telegraph