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European election debate: DUP and TUV join forces to defend the Catholic Church on abortion and gay marriage

By Liam Clarke

It is not often that you see the DUP and TUV joining forces in defence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But it happened last night on BBC's compelling Spotlight debate which pitted the six leading European candidates against one another.

Diane Dodds of the DUP and Jim Allister of the TUV, both Free Presbyterians as it happens, rallied around a statement by Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor.

In it, he reiterated his church's opposition to abortion and gay marriage and urged Catholics to do their homework to determine the attitudes of candidates on these divisive issues before deciding who to vote for.

The DUP and TUV are both more in line with Catholic teaching on this issue than the SDLP or Sinn Fein, and they see it as one of the issues on which they can start getting Catholic votes.

So Ms Dodds and Mr Allister were all for the Bishop's right to intervene – which Martina Anderson of Sinn Fein and the SDLP's Alex Attwood, both of whom back gay marriage, were sniffy about at best.

Anna Lo of Alliance, a Taoist, was the only one to take on the Bishop in a full frontal attack, calling his words "church dictation".

Perhaps the highlight of the discussion came when Mr Allister turned on Ms Anderson to tell her "you are the only convicted bomber around this table" and she took it on the chin, refusing to rise to the bait.

The TUV leader showed ingenuity in inserting her past into the discussion at all. The question the six main Euro candidates were dealing with was whether the free movement of people in Europe was a good thing.

Mr Allister pointed out that Ms Anderson had once jumped bail and gone on the run to Glasgow where she was arrested with a bomb team.

She let him make his point and move on. Other candidates from the UUP, Alliance and the SDLP didn't join it.

In the past, such an exchange might have descended into outrage and 'whataboutery', sparking a slanging match that would have taken up the whole broadcast.

Mr Allister and Ms Anderson were possibly the dominant voices in a debate where all candidates performed well and immigration was one of the crunch subjects.

He presented himself as the protest vote. A vote for him was a vote against Brussels and against "floodgate immigration".

He sounded like someone on the further fringes of Ukip and didn't seem to play well with either the other candidates or the audience.

One woman said that, after listening to his presentation, "maybe I should vote for you because I would really like to see you shipped off to Europe."

This time it was the unionist hardliner who shrugged it off and even joined in the laughter at his own expense.

Anna Lo of Alliance pointed out that there is, in fact, very little immigration here.

Roughly as many people come as leave and two-thirds of the 60,000 Poles who came here during the construction boom left again when it ended.

Diane Dodds warned against the dangers of racism, saying that her party had translated its election literature into seven languages.

It was a night of surprises.


How they performed: our rating of the six candidates in debate

1. Jim Nicolson: Ulster Unionists

Jim Nicholson’s one mistake was reading his opening and closing speeches.

He sounded like an exasperated Liberal, saying that “too many men give their view on abortion”.

The long-serving Ulster Unionist — a quarter century under his belt in Brussels — also hit a homely note when he said the thing he missed most in Europe was “a good bowl of Irish stew”.

Verdict: A far more polished contribution than on UTV


2. Martina Anderson: Sinn Fein

This was a big improvement for Martina Anderson after Monday night’s UTV debate.

The Sinn Fein candidate was fluent and gave the impression of speaking on her feet rather than doggedly reciting the party line.

She also struck a human note, speaking of missing her mother — who suffers from Alzheimer's — when she |representing her constituents in Europe.

Verdict: Her best showing so far — she stood out


3. Alex Attwood: SDLP

Alex Attwood can be dry on occasion — but he struck an inspirational tone on Europe and on immigration when he said: “When we deny the immigrant and the stranger, we deny ourselves”.

Stormont’s former environment minister nicely sidestepped Bishop Treanor's advice on abortion and same-sex marriage by saying both he and Richard Haass admired Pope Francis.

Verdict: Effective rather than brilliant in discussion


4. Jim Allister: TUV

Jim Allister didn't confine himself to Europe — that was just for starters.

The Traditional Unionist Voice leader happily lambasted Stormont, power-sharing, the Maze, Brussels and same-sex marriage.

At times the former DUP MEP — a party he now opposes — sailed a little close to the wind on immigration, sounding alarmist and attracting jeers from the audience.

Verdict: He has found a contrarian niche and is a star performer


5. Diane Dodds: DUP

Diane Dodds was very much in command of her brief and spoke with authority, to the point of appearing quite |severe.

The DUP candidate reached out to a more liberal constituency with her strong |condemnations of racism.

Mrs Dodds, the most active of Northern Ireland’s three MEPs, also stressed her work in helping community groups to get funding.

Verdict: She has done the work and will keep the seat


6. Anna Lo: Alliance Party

Anna Lo stumbled occasionally, for instance on human trafficking, but found her pace later on.

The South Belfast MLA —the UK’s first Chinese parliamentarian — spoke powerfully on immigration and had some soundbites which got applause, for example calling on Assembly members to “leave the Bible at the door” when they entered Stormont.

Verdict: An uneven performance, good in parts

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