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Northern Ireland leaders debate: Sharp exchanges in a tussle that didn’t disappoint

Northern Ireland party leaders are unlikely to ever be in demand as stand-up comics.

But, to be fair, they managed to deliver some passable one-liners during last night's televised debate.

Gerry Adams got in the first jibe of the evening, accusing SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie of “Margaret in Wonderland” fantasy economics.

Ms Ritchie — criticised in many quarters for her performance in last month's TV debate — landed some pointed remarks herself.

During what was generally a much more confident performance in front of the cameras, she challenged one comment made by the Sinn Fein president, saying: “This is another little mistruth from Gerry, another little porky.”

The SDLP leader also had arguably the best line of the night, when the decision by Sinn Fein to withdraw its South Belfast candidate Alex Maskey was raised.

She joked: “He has retired from politics.”

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Mr Adams, needless to say, swiftly denied this and made clear Mr Maskey would be back in the field in next year's Assembly election.

Peter Robinson, meanwhile, said during exchanges between the Sinn Fein and SDLP leaders: “I don't want to get between Punch and Judy here.”

And when asked about the denials by Mr Adams of an IRA past, the DUP leader said: “I think it's for the birds.”

Sir Reg Empey saved one of his best lines for the end, referring to the frequency with which Mr Robinson has voted with the Conservatives in the House of Commons.

That point was made after the DUP leader had claimed the UUP would be “Tory voting fodder” at Westminster.

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