06 Jun

My Eye – NI leaders lock horns…

The UTV debate last night left a number of people feeling a little queasy.

And I’m not just talking about Naomi Long. The Alliance leader had to call for a time-out, as she was feeling unwell.

Much of the debate, as one would imagine given the events of recent weeks, centred around terrorism.

UUP Leader Robin Swann and DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds criticised Sinn Féin for condemning the recent attacks, while not condemning past IRA attacks. Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland, hit back, arguing that the DUP’s criticism was hypocritical as the party had not sought to distance itself from an endorsement from a UDA-affiliated organisation.

Naomi Long, on the other hand, said that this part of the debate was supposed to be about the islamist atrocities in London and Manchester. She said that the NI parties’ eagerness to change the subject to Northern Ireland would come across as “tasteless”.

The parties later clashed about Brexit and ‘Special Status’, and there was a heated exchange around Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism.

The SDLP’s Colum Eastwood said that the Sinn Féin policy would, if successful, lead to no nationalist representation in Westminster. Michelle O’Neill, on the other hand, said that the party’s representatives were far more effective in Brussels and the Dáil.

All of this was mighty jolly, but one has to wonder what we learned.

Certainly, listening to the proceedings, I can’t say I discovered much. All of the positions discussed had been discussed and defended before – there was nothing new in either the substance or presentation.

In fact, I thought Jeremy Paxman’s consecutive grilling of May and Corbyn worked better. Though that format was a compromise, in response to Theresa May’s unwillingness to debate, the format allowed more time, and gave a practised debater a single target to aim at.

As a result, Paxo was able to drill down into the parties’ manifesto commitments – rather than focus on the big ticket issues that all of the parties share. This elicited more substance, and more novelty, than the UTV debate – which was a bit of a slog to get through, in all honesty.

Maybe for the next Election the broadcasters should pack away the podiums, and dust off Stephen Nolan instead?

This article was originally published as part of the Chambré Public Affairs General Election 2017 Bulletin – your free guide to the 2017 General Election in Northern Ireland. To subscribe, please click here and fill out the short form

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