Who were the winners and losers? Suzanne Breen's verdict on UTV election debate
The DUP and the Ulster Unionists clashed dramatically in the first leaders’ debate ahead of Thursday’s Westminster election.
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UUP leader Steve Aiken said the blame for the Irish Sea border in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal lay with his unionist rival which “wasn’t over the jot and tittle” of the issue.
But in the UTV broadcast, Emma-Little Pengelly, the DUP’s South Belfast candidate, strongly denied the claim and said her party had repeatedly blocked bad Brexit deals. It aimed to once again hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament and use its influence to change Mr Johnson’s agreement, she said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the DUP’s strategy of “Ulster Hall meetings and beating drums” was doomed to failure.
In a heated debate, he challenged Sinn Fein on abstentionism. He pointed to knife-edge Brexit votes in the House of Commons and said Michelle O’Neill’s claim that MPs could change nothing on Brexit was untrue. The Sinn Fein vice-president accused him of “dishonesty”.
The debate was recorded in Queen’s Film Theatre in south Belfast and chaired by presenter Marc Mallett. All the parties bar the DUP were represented by their leaders.
Ms Pengelly, who is engaged in a closely-run race with the SDLP to hold her Westminster seat, represented the party.
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The debate was broken into three segments addressing health, Brexit and the failure to restore devolution at Stormont.
Ms Little-Pengelly denied the DUP had failed on Brexit.
— UTV (@utv) December 8, 2019
“We’ve stopped a bad Theresa May deal, we stopped a bad Boris deal, we can do that again,” she said.
But Mr Aiken said Mr Johnson’s deal happened on the DUP’s watch.
“Despite being told time and time again ‘do not agree to a regulatory border down the Irish Sea’, Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and you Emma agreed to do that,” he said.
Ms Pengelly responded: “It doesn’t matter how aggressively you say it Steve, it doesn’t make it true. Steve, unfortunately, is absolutely wrong on this. Instead of being aggressive, you should go away and take a look at it.”
“Don’t tell me that I’m wrong,” Mr Aiken replied. “On October 2, your party agreed to a regulatory border down the Irish Sea. The only difference between that and Boris Johnson’s deal now is around the issue of consent. Your party did that.”
Michelle O’Neill disagreed with the suggestion that Sinn Fein should take its seats at Westminster to stop Brexit.
— UTV (@utv) December 8, 2019
“Look at the last couple of years, Irish interests will never be served at Westminster,” she said. “Thirty-five SNP MPs couldn’t stop Brexit.”
But Alliance leader Naomi Long challenged her, saying: “We haven’t Brexited because the SNP and others turned up and voted the government down consistently and you haven’t been there to be part of that and you won’t be there to be part of that.”
Mr Eastwood said the only way to stop Brexit was to go to Westminster and vote against it with the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats.
Who’ll get your vote? Suzanne Breen runs the rule over the candidates who took part in the UTV debate
Colum Eastwood, SDLP
Colum Eastwood has not put a foot wrong in this election. His media performances have been first-class, and this was no exception.
Two SDLP advisers accompanied him to the debate, but he didn’t need them. From start to finish he was passionate, polished and professional. He was streets ahead of Michelle O’Neill. While he scored countless points against her, it wasn’t in a destructive way.
His most successful moments were when he challenged Sinn Fein on abstentionism from a pragmatic, not ideological, position.
He blew away the argument that going to Westminster made no practical difference.
Whether we liked it or not, massive decisions were taken there, and MPs had already stopped Brexit several times. “We need to be there fighting against Boris Johnson, locking him out of Downing Street,” Eastwood said.
He brushed off claims that this stance was at odds with pulling out of North Belfast for an abstentionist Sinn Fein candidate.
“I’d much rather have John Finucane sitting in his house than Nigel Dodds sitting in the House of Commons,” he replied.
There was a stinging one-liner to the DUP about how “no amount of Ulster Hall meetings or banging drums” would change things on Brexit. Eastwood’s words will have secured him no friends among unionists. But his eyes are focused on Foyle, and he may well have won over soft Sinn Fein voters with this sparky performance.
Emma Little-Pengelly, DUP
The word was that Nigel Dodds would stand in for Arlene Foster in this debate but the DUP opted for Emma Little-Pengelly as a substitute.
She is fighting to retain her Westminster seat from the SDLP so prime-time media exposure helps. The outgoing South Belfast MP performed well given that she has considerably less experience than her rivals in such scenarios.
Her opening statement was excellent. Her brief was obviously to mention the DUP’s £1.5bn confidence-and-supply money for Northern Ireland as often as possible.
The repetition does get a little tedious. Naomi Long at one stage said the money was “a drop in the ocean” of what was needed to turn around public services here.
Little-Pengelly didn’t have answers for some of the criticism her rivals made. On a Brexit plan, the best the DUP can come up with is that a hung Parliament is likely and it will exert its influence again if holding the balance of power.
Little-Pengelly did handle Steve Aiken’s assertive approach expertly. Her barrister training clearly helps.
She came across as moderate and measured, and that will do her no harm in South Belfast.
She held up her party’s manifesto twice near the end of the debate. That is aimed not at the DUP’s core voters but at the middle-class unionist constituency whom the party wants to win over with its policy detail.
Naomi Long, Alliance
Naomi Long started nervously, and that is not like her. She and Steve Aiken were the only leaders to look at their notes during their opening statements.
But from there on the Alliance leader was in top form. She tackled both the DUP and Sinn Fein very successfully several times.
There were some stinging one-liners. Long insisted it wasn’t a choice between dealing with health and an Irish Language Act — “we can walk and chew gum at the same time”.
In the health discussion, she raised Richard Pengelly, the Department of Health permanent secretary and Little-Pengelly’s husband, which clearly is uncomfortable territory for the DUP.
Less successful was Long’s metaphor about Brexit unicorns and donkeys. She has used it too many times and it has lost its appeal.
The Alliance leader was totally honest about our NHS crisis, admitting there isn’t “a silver bullet or magic wand”.
She was taking no prisoners regarding the DUP and Sinn Fein’s record of government at Stormont. Alliance, the SDLP and UUP sat around the Executive table while the two big parties sat in another room and carved things out between them, she said.
Long came across as that rare breed — a straight-talking politician with integrity. This performance strengthens her image as someone who wants to get things done here but is frustrated by the obstinacy of others.
Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein
This was a typical Michelle O’Neill performance. She didn’t drop the ball, but neither did she run with it and score.
Sinn Fein prefers script over spontaneity, and its vice-president stuck to that approach. Tory austerity was a get out-of-jail card whenever her party’s own record was raised.
Her best line came when accusing DUP politicians of initial over-excitement about their influence at Westminster. “They’re now sobering up to the reality that if you’re bought, you can be sold,” she said. The image of a drunk DUP will have raised smiles in a fair few homes. O’Neill’s weakest moment came when she was asked why there was only a single line in Sinn Fein’s manifesto about health. “This election is all about Brexit,” she said.
Neither had O’Neill answers as to why as Health Minister she didn’t reverse the DUP’s decision to end pay parity for health service workers here. In her favour, she came across as pleasant, and someone who can definitely do business with unionists. She is no bogeywoman.
Off camera, relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein representatives were positive. It was a friendly, not frosty, mood. Despite a very bitter election campaign, don’t be surprised if these two parties manage to overcome their differences on an Irish Language Act and reach a deal that will return them both to power at Stormont.
Steve Aiken, UUP
Steve Aiken went into this debate determined to tackle the DUP, and he did so with gusto. Indeed, with so much gusto that he faced allegations of aggression from Emma Little-Pengelly.
There was an awkward moment during the Brexit segment when the DUP candidate tried to cut across the UUP leader. “Wait!,” he said firmly, and put up his hand. A male politician saying that to a female one just doesn’t look good, whatever the intention. It wasn’t helped by Aiken then saying to her: “Don’t tell me I’m wrong!”
The UUP is taking an assertive approach towards its DUP rival in this election and that is tactically no bad thing. But the tone of this particular exchange was perhaps not the wisest. The substance of what Aiken said, unlike the delivery, was actually very good.
The point that a border down the Irish Sea appeared on the DUP’s watch and “Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and you Emma” bear responsibility will hurt the DUP. Although it may not lose that party support, as grassroots unionists seem to blame Boris Johnson alone for the Brexit betrayal. Aiken called for a health emergency to be declared here by London rather than waiting for the return of devolution.
He pointed out that when the UUP held Stormont’s Health Ministry there were 16,000 on our waiting list compared to 308,000 now. But his whole performance, unfortunately, just didn’t hang together.