Jon Tonge: Who did best in BBC NI leader's debate
Round two of the Northern Ireland leaders’ debate — this time on BBC1 — gave the five largest parties a final chance to sway the large number of undecided voters. At least the sub-titles worked this time.
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For the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson stood in for abstentionist Arlene — useful training potentially for his Westminster leadership role next week if things go wrong for Nigel Dodds in North Belfast.
Donaldson opened strongly, dismissing the “existential threat” to the Union created by Brexit.
Sir Jeffrey even took credit for the election being called, which given the grim nature and timing of the contest, might have been a risky thing in which to glory.
Within a minute, UUP leader Steve Aiken went in hard on Donaldson and that theme was a constant.
He as certainly not building bridges with the DUP. And he destroyed the “fantasy” Scotland to Northern Ireland one. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood just wanted a dual carriageway to Derry please, which might be considered project downsizing. Alliance leader Naomi Long wondered why an expensive bridge was being mooted at a time when shortfalls in finance meant children were bringing toilet rolls to schools.
Aiken’s main argument was that the DUP had performed so terribly at Westminster that the UUP was, er, hoping the DUP would get back in North Belfast. Questioned by the excellent ringmaster, Noel Thompson, what would happen if Boris won and romped on the Brexit bed of the DUP’s making, Donaldson insisted the DUP would remain relevant. But how? Sir Jeffrey rightly lauded the £1.5 billion gained for Northern Ireland by his party — but what now?
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Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill correctly ruled out a united Ireland as inevitable. Asked whether a Boris Brexit might be functional for the Irish unity project, O’Neill insisted that running Northern Ireland into the ground was not the way forward for unity — which wiped out a few decades of recent republican history. Naomi Long also rejected the inevitability thesis.
Colum Eastwood drew applause by attacking Sinn Fein for being absent from Westminster yet trousering millions in expenses. O’Neill responded sharply, by claiming the SDLP leader was “disingenuous”, highlighting SNP impotence in London. Special status for the North — which a Boris Brexit represented — was a product of Sinn Fein activism beyond Westminster, she claimed. We were only 20 minutes in and pan-nationalism and pan-unionism both seemed in tatters – except in North and South Belfast of course.
Eastwood has enjoyed a good campaign. The nadir of his party’s 2017 removal from Westminster left some wondering whether the SDLP would ever return. He now stands of the brink of heading here along with a colleague. The SDLP leader may also have been buoyed by the apparent photo endorsement from Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Interesting that, given it is only eleven months since the launch of the “historic partnership” between the SDLP and, er, Fianna Fáil — a tie-up rejected by the SDLP’s MP-to-be in South Belfast.
Naomi Long performed solidly and it has been a fine year for her party, its vote up 5% in the council elections and 11% in the Europeans. But a First-Past-the-Post contest remains difficult terrain for Alliance. Another issue is that Westminster contests are for the true believers. In 2017, those identifying as unionist or nationalist were twice as likely to vote as those eschewing such labels.
The debate moved onto the health crisis and the associated problem of Assembly restoration. It was everyone else’s fault that it was mothballed. Not their party’s responsibility. Oh no. Michelle O’Neill gave no ground on an Irish Language Act, insisting it was a right. “It’s not an either or” in terms of a Language Act versus dealing with the health crisis was her line. Good luck with those talks on Monday, Secretary of State.
Each representative performed creditably. But how much any of Tuesday night really mattered is questionable. The viewing figure for Sunday night’s UTV leaders’ debate was just shy of 100,000. More watched the programme immediately afterwards, where the contestants had to eat grubs in a jungle. Maybe UTV host Marc Mallett should have made similar demands upon the politicians. An internal BBC document this week showed less than half of 16-34 year olds watch BBC1 in an average week — and younger electors are least likely to vote anyway.
A viewing figure of 100,000 for an election debate is not a bad figure, but over 800,000 people voted in Northern Ireland’s 2017 Westminster election.
So, 7 out of 8 voters last time didn’t bother tuning in. Make that 12 out of every 13 of those on the electoral register of almost 1.3 million. If Tuesday night’s viewing figures were similar, then the real winners were obvious. Other channels.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and was Principal Investigator of the ESRC’s 2010, 2015 and 2017 Northern Ireland election studies
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