Arlene Foster was wearing her favourite Crown brooch. Michelle O’Neill had a picture of the Proclamation on the wall. Brandon Lewis was waffling away. Welcome to Question Time from Northern Ireland – a far from impressive sight.
The BBC’s flagship programme is a shadow of what it once was, and nothing captured its demise better than the awful offering from Belfast on Thursday night.
This was not the big beasts of local politics doing battle, or even exchanging ideas. Arlene’s attire and Michelle’s décor was all that was memorable about proceedings. With a new Irish Sea border and a global pandemic wreaking havoc on our lives, the programme somehow managed to be bland and boring.
Neither the First nor deputy First Ministers dropped the ball by saying anything awful. Team DUP will have been particularly relieved as they place particular value on Arlene’s image before a UK-wide audience.
Not that I’d expect many in London, Liverpool or Leeds were watching after the first few minutes. As a political journalist in Belfast, I was bored silly so I doubt many viewers across the Irish Sea stuck with the programme.
The first question was about the new border checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland. Arlene escaped lightly with no forensic focus on the DUP’s Brexit record.
Neither the presenter nor fellow panellists chose to suggest that this was a mess very much of the DUP’s own making.
But it was Brandon Lewis who looked the most ridiculous. As Secretary of State, he’s about as convincing as Karen Bradley on a bad day.
There was no border in the Irish Sea, he insisted. He wasn’t for shifting even after the list of documents to be filled in when bringing goods from Britain into Northern Ireland was listed.
This is where we needed loud guffaws of laughter from the studio audience - except there wasn’t one - or a wry David Dimbleby smile. Fiona Bruce failed to challenge Brandon on most of the nonsense that was falling from his lips.
The Secretary of State insisted that far from facing a trading nightmare, Northern Ireland now had a “huge opportunity” with access to both Britain and the EU through the single market.
If that was true, nobody asked why the government was denying the same advantage to the rest of the UK. Shadow Secretary of State, Louise Haigh, is usually an impressive media performer but, on this occasion, she let Brandon away with far too much.
Pulling faces is no substitute for actually confronting nonsense head-on in a discussion and slapping it down.
As for the fifth panellist, Professor Anand Menon of King’s College London, he made so little impact in the debate, he may as well not even have been there.
On Covid, the discussion was equally abysmal. The UK has the highest seven day death rate in the world.
“It’s an utter tragedy when you lose lives,” said Brandon with his best serious face. He muttered something about demographic and geographic differences which made no sense at all.
Arlene was asked about the DUP vetoing health advice late last year. She rambled on about how it had been an incredibly difficult time for everyone in Northern Ireland and wasn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?
There would always be “bumps along the way” in a five-party Executive which had only very recently got back together again, she said. That almost sounded sentimental but, after the Stormont shambles we’ve seen over the past year, I doubt many people will be buying such excuses.