Sometimes I wonder if I come from a different planet than other people. Watching the leaders’ debate on UTV last Thursday night, I couldn’t help thinking, not for the first time, that there must surely be a better way to organise how we do things in our world.
The fact that five, relatively intelligent individuals, all claiming to have the ‘good of the people’ at heart, couldn’t allow themselves to give a single inch of ground to anyone else in the debate struck me as old-fashioned and frankly, pathetic.
If, like me, you grew up in the era where local political television programmes were dominated by Ian Paisley facing off against John Hume, John Taylor and Ken Magennis, with Oliver Napier popping up like the David Steele puppet on Spitting Image, then you probably welcomed the relative calm of this current debate.
No one shouted ... well, not really. No one walked out in a huff, after that clumsy moment of disengaging themselves from the microphone they were plugged into under the desk, which usually provided the only light relief of the night.
No, we’re a more ‘civilised’ lot nowadays.
The boxing gloves may have been replaced by jokey banter about what job they’d have done if they hadn’t gone into politics but the underlying adherence to one ‘I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong’ narrow agenda, and the banging on about it relentlessly, was depressingly familiar.
Like old biddies, sniping at each other from behind a polite cup of tea, their attacks may have been less blunt, but the vitriol behind them was just as strong.
Sadly, the impressive work done by individual MLAs and by some parties towards creating a real shared future gets set aside once the hustings begin. The need to fine-slice their differences in order to get themselves elected, leads to a chorus of blame and insult that leaves most of us weary and some very cynical about the point of democracy.
How would I do it differently? I would insist that the candidates only use positive language. That would be a huge challenge for some, if not all of them, exposing how much they rely on attacking others rather than being specific about what they achieve themselves and what they have in common with their rivals.
I would insist that they begin any debate with a round of acknowledgement — where each person acknowledges each other candidate for what they and their party are and do.
How would I acknowledge the likes of the British National Party (BNP) with whom I think I have absolutely nothing in common? Well, I could acknowledge that they feel strongly about looking after the people and have their interests close to their heart.
And I would get each candidate to ask each other what his or her main concerns are and what their main fears are.
Something very enlivening happens when people are allowed to set aside the traditional rules of engagement. We see people, as opposed to parties. Commonality as opposed to conflict. Creation as opposed to cutting down.
And in the absence of spending time and energy in petty point-scoring, which ultimately doesn’t leave anyone feeling any better, the whole process can take on a momentum that is forward moving.
We’re all in this boat together, like it or not. And we’ve done well to get it this far. Let’s not now get stuck going round in circles.