Something for everyone in first Assembly leaders’ debate

Participants asked which actor they would wish to portray them

The  debate between Northern Ireland’s five main parties – UUP’s Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, DUP’s Arlene Foster, Alliance Party’s David Ford and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood. (UTV presenter Marc Mallett is facing away from the camera). Photograph: Arthur Allison

The debate between Northern Ireland’s five main parties – UUP’s Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, DUP’s Arlene Foster, Alliance Party’s David Ford and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood. (UTV presenter Marc Mallett is facing away from the camera). Photograph: Arthur Allison

 

The first leaders’ debate in the Northern Assembly Assembly election campaign took place in the Lyric Theatre on Wednesday night, with no high drama but all five politicians happy that politically and metaphorically no one broke a leg.

UTV broadcaster Marc Mallett quizzed the representatives of the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance on a range of issues, including health, education, the economy and abortion.

This was the first time that Arlene Foster faced questions in an election debate as First Minister and DUP leader. It was also the first such outing for new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, while it was the first Assembly leaders’ debate for Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt.

Also standing at the podiums for the UTV debate were Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Alliance leader David Ford, both veterans of such encounters.

The men wore suits, Ms Foster opted for red jacket and navy dress.

And while the debate was held on a theatre stage there were no significant theatrics during the exchanges. Each of the five politicians will have left the Lyric satisfied that, while they did not score any major victories over their opponents, neither did they commit any blunders that could undermine their or their party’s prospects.

Abortion was surely the most sensitive issue that was discussed, with the five politicians asked did they support the recent prosecution and conviction of a woman for procuring abortion pills.

Ms Foster and Mr Eastwood respectively said the DUP and the SDLP were pro-life parties, but that they felt the best way to deal with woman was to “wrap our arms around the young woman in distress”.

Mr McGuinness, Mr Nesbitt and Mr Ford expressed support for making abortion permissible in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and they also indicated that the woman should not have been prosecuted. Mr McGuinness said while he disapproved of the actions of the woman “the hard edge of the law” was not the way to deal with the matter.

There were some minor sparks during the discussion on education, with Mr McGuinness stating that Sinn Féin had got rid of the Eleven Plus transfer test for students moving from primary to second level school. Mr Eastwood said that, regardless, many children were compelled to sit non-state transfer tests set by grammar schools.

On employment, Mr McGuinness said the Northern Executive was “going in the right direction” to create more jobs, while Ms Foster said that during the economic downturn 40,000 new jobs were created. “It is wrong to talk down Northern Ireland. I will always talk Northern Ireland up,” said Ms Foster.

They also talked up last November’s Fresh Start Agreement with Mr Ford, Mr Eastwood and Mr Nesbitt disagreeing; the Alliance leader saying it was “inadequate because it left out the needs of victims”.

Mr McGuinness accused Mr Eastwood of failing to show leadership for not supporting the agreement.

Ms Foster defended her position for warning that if unionists did not vote for the DUP they could get Mr McGuinness as First Minister. Having the First Minister post meant more ministerial posts for the DUP. The “symbolism” of the First Minister post also was important, she added, and she also hinted that the DUP might take the education portfolio in the next Assembly. Currently, it is held by Sinn Féin Minister John O’Dowd.

Appropriate to the setting of the Lyric, Mr Mallett also asked the five leaders the soft question of what actor they would wish to portray them. Mr McGuinness said he was satisfied with Colm Meaney who is already playing him in a film about him and the Rev Ian Paisley.

Ms Foster went for Demi Moore because of their similar hairstyle and figure. Mr Ford chose Liam Neeson. Mr Eastwood said Neeson was too old for him so he picked Jamie Dornan. Former UTV broadcaster Mr Nesbitt, after unaccountably picking Liz Hurley, then opted for the man asking the questions – Mr Mallett.

There are 276 candidates standing in the North’s 18 six-seater constituencies. The DUP is running 44 candidates while Sinn Féin is standing 39. The Ulster Unionist Party has 33 candidates, the SDLP 24, Alliance 23, the Greens 18 and the Traditional Unionist Voice 15. The UK Independence Party has 13 candidates and the Northern Ireland Conservatives 12. The Progressive Unionist Party and People Before Profit are also contesting a number of seats while several independents are also competing.