Northern Ireland leaders serve up competitive TV debate

Discussion gives voters food for thought ahead of Wednesday's election

The BBC Northern Ireland political leaders’ debate on Tuesday night was a lively and combative affair that changed the stay-at-home mind of at least one voter and may have also given other voters food for thought on how they will use their ballots on Thursday.

The debate involving the leaders of the five main parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Alliance – was broadcast live and in front of an audience who threw questions at the panel, all of which brought an edge to proceedings.

One man in the audience admitted that he was one of the 45 per cent who couldn’t be bothered to vote in last May’s election but after hearing Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill, Mike Nesbitt, Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long he felt compelled to come out on Thursday.

Challenged to nail his colours to the mast by polite but incisive presenter Noel Thompson, he said he was minded to share his first and subsequent preference votes with the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance because he wasn’t impressed with what he saw as the “negativity” of the DUP’s Ms Foster and Sinn Féin’s Ms O’Neill.


He believed the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders were “hell bent on dividing the people of Northern Ireland”.

The programme was broadcast throughout Britain and Northern Ireland and one wondered what the viewers of Tunbridge Wells and Milton Keynes made of it all.

Were they able to get their heads around the complexities of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and potentially £490 million going up in smoke via wood pellet boilers pumping away in empty sheds in Antrim, Tyrone and Fermanagh?

With RHI the first item discussed it was a case of ganging up on the DUP leader. “We need an end to 10 years (of government) hallmarked by incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the whiff of corruption,” said Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, reflecting the general thrust of the attack from Michelle O’Neill, Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long.

Ms O’Neill also majored on the arrogance argument although she was reminded by presenter Noel Thompson that when she was agriculture Minister her officials held 58 workshops advising people of the benefits of the scheme.

The British people were hearing arguments people in the North have heard for several weeks now but how wise they were after the event is anybody’s guess.

Ms Foster repeated that the public inquiry into RHI would exonerate her and complained about “smears” and “political insinuation devoid of fact”.

There was much discussion as well as about whether voters should transfer in a cross-community fashion. Certainly not was Ms Foster’s advice, as that could lead to Sinn Féin as the largest party, with Michelle O’Neill in line to be first minister, with Sinn Féin agitating for a Border poll and Gerry Adams delivering his “radical republican agenda”.

Ms Long was unimpressed with such warnings. The Executive office was a joint office and if the DUP did not have the first ministry “the only thing that will change is that the DUP’s ego will be damaged”, she said.


Ms Foster counselled against unionists transferring to the UUP by rephrasing Mike Nesbitt’s line of “vote me you get Colum, vote Colum you get me”. “If you vote for Colum you will get Michelle,” she warned.

Mr Nesbitt was back like a shot: “People voted for you last time and they got Martin McGuinness (as deputy first minister) – and he wrote your resignation letter.”

Mr Eastwood said people “should vote for change and transfer for change”. He believed people across the North were prepared to vote “cross-community”. Doing so would not undermine nationalists’ nationalism or unionists’ unionism.

The SDLP leader warned that a vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin would result in a return to British direct rule

Ms Long said now is the time to try powersharing rather than “power carve-up” and Ministers using their departments as “fiefdoms”.

Ms Foster again on RHI claimed the cash for ash issue was used by Sinn Féin as an excuse rather than the reason for an election which prompted some interruptions from the Sinn Féin leader.

“What about a little bit of respect, Michelle?” asked Ms Foster, in an implicit rejoinder to the Sinn Féin accusation that she and the DUP have been disrespectful to nationalists. That got a clap from the DUP members in the audience.

“What about respect for the public,” said Ms O’Neill, which had the Sinn Féiners putting their hands together.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times