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The Northern Ireland Leaders’ Debate April 22, 2010

Posted by Garibaldy in UK General Election 2010.

Northern Ireland gets a leaders’ debate of its very own (not sure if that link will work in the south, and it lasts for 30 days). And, as was inevitable, it was a poor imitation of the one across the water – and timed, for reasons I’ll never understand, to clash with the last half hour of the Sky British leaders debate. Unlike the British debates, there were adverts in this one, which obivously had a detrimental effect on the debate as a whole. This isn’t a detailed description of the debate like we had for the British one last week, just some random responses.

And, apart from laughing at Adams’ “check out our leadership” line and wondering if Robinson realised he was going off message when saying that at the last election the DUP was given a mandate to negotiate for the people of Northern Ireland (the people of NI is supposed to include non-unionists now Peter; it’s not 1974 or 1985 any more), my first major response was to wonder what the hell Margaret Ritchie was doing reading out her one minute spiel as to why the audience of first-time voters should vote for her party. Ritchie has made a name for herself standing up clearly, whether it was over funding to loyalists or over the election pacts. However, how on earth are we supposed to take seriously a leader who can’t even outline the very basics of why she should get support for only 60 seconds? At this point, I imagine there was quite a lot of forehead slapping going on among SDLP members wondering why they hadn’t voted for Mc Donnell. If there wasn’t, there certainly should have been.

The question of abstentionism came up. Adams gave a robust defence of abstentionism, a question that might come up more should there be a hung parliament. He raised the issue of nationality (although he referred to England rather than Britain), and the oath of allegiance as arguments against it. He also launched a well-planned attack on the attendance rate of the SDLP MPs, and arguing that they had already sold themselves in the event of a hung parliament anyway by saying they would vote with Labour. His argument in short was that the NI MPs had next to no influence, and that instead increasing devolved powers was where it’s at. Robinson strongly stated that a hung parliament would be an opportunity for NI MPs to secure a deal for NI. Ritchie argued it was vital to be in Westminister to fight cuts and for NI’s economic and business interests. Reg Empey was keen not to have a hung parliament, like Tories generally, and suggested that it offered oppunities for nationalists in NI, Wales and Scotland to weaken the union.

The Fermanagh/South Tyrone pact, and the issue of pacts in general came up. Both unionists were openly in favour, and Robinson clearly hopes for some sort of deal for future assembly elections. Ritchie maintained her strong opposition, but on the grounds of representation rather than saying they were sectarian. Adams accused Ritchie of ignoring his requests for a meeting (she accused him of a “mistruth”) and argued that there was nothing wrong with pacts, but said that his objection to the Fermanagh/South Tyrone pact was that its midwife was the Orange Order. That may or may not be true (I’m not sure that it is) but it was certainly the most effective line to give to his target constituency. From my own point of view, the discussions of the pact reflected an extremely significant problem dealing with sectarianism. Either people pretend it is much less of a problem than it actually is, or they implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – suggest it is a problem that themmuns have. While this attitude continues, the anti-sectarian struggle will be an extremely difficult one, and anyone who looked at the proposals on a shared future from the two largest parties can see that it is liable to be a major problem for a long time. KeithBelfast, who secured post-debate interviews with each of the leaders ( Reg, Peter, Margaret and Gerry ), asked Empey outright about sectarianism and the electoral pact, and, clearly uncomfortable, he wriggled without answering the question.

Empey at a serious go at the Family Robinson over expenses, both regarding expensive pens and the land deal. Robinson pointed out that he personally had been cleared on the expenses issue. His defence on the piece of land he got for £5 from Fred Fraser in order to help another developer was quite weak, although he stuck to his line that he hadn’t been helped financially. Robinson got questioned on the issues of corruption regarding his family, and then Gerry Adams was asked by the chair about his brother. He instead addressed the question asked from the audience by talking about the average industrial wage and an absence of personal expenses among his MPs. On his brother, he pointed out that people had been entirely sympathetic to his situation. And that was that. Instead, Dougal then asked about membership of the Provos, and about him questioning the health of Deloures Price and Brendan Hughes when they said that he had been in it. Adams maintained that he was never in it, never asked to join, and pointed out his involvement in politics stemmed from 1964 and 1965. Empey told him that no-one believed him, but then said it was time to move on, talking about the dissidents, and he returned to the land deal issue. And, as with nationalism, it is the infra-unionist battle that the leaders were most interested in.

Peter Robinson had a decent performance. He kept his temper in check when his integrity was questioned, citing the legal opinions that had cleared him, and the fact that they had been accepted by Martin McGuinness and UTV’s own political correspondent as clearing him. Empey I think did well. He scored points against Robinson. Adams had a very strong performance, there is no doubt. He was well briefed on the SDLP’s vulnerabilities, landed a punch with the point about an SDLP MLA on an MOD-funded trip to Afghanistan, and handled the difficult questions about his own issues with aplomb. A clear difference from the leadership debate in the south at the last general election there. He is much more attuned to northern politics, and a northern audience. Ritchie was frankly dreadful. Having started off reading things out, she then continued to do it for pretty much every question. You could see the typed sheets on her desk. She came across as a serious lightweight, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

Overall, then, I have to say I found it a bit rubbish. Adams clearly did best, then probably Empey and Robinson. Ritchie was the clear loser. In 2001, a disastrous performance in a debate at the old Crumlin Road Courthouse made the outgoing 77-year old North Belfast Ulster Unionist MP Cecil Walker look old, tired, and shambolic. He dropped from first place to fourth in the election. While Ritchie’s performance was nothing as bad, I would think hers is the next most distastrous television performance I’ve seen by a politician in NI.


1. NI Leaders’ Debate: Response at CLR « Garibaldy Blog - April 22, 2010

[…] I’ve just posted my response to the first Northern Ireland leaders’ debate over at the Cedar Lounge Revolution. The short version is that I thought it was a disaster of near-Cecil Walker proportions for […]


2. splinteredsunrise - April 23, 2010

Caitriona Ruane will be feeling happier after that, anyway. I can understand why SDLP members didn’t elect McDonnell – he’s not very popular with people who have to work closely with him – but yes, headslapping is called for. And of course, Teflon Gerry doing his folksy thing, far and away the most confident.

Empey on the attack – he’s not actually bad in a debate setting – and Robinson keeping the temper under control, though I thought he did look tired and irritable. He’d be much more irritable if they’d let Allister in, which might have made for more fun viewing.

There’s that spontaneity thing. I often think with PSF politicians – even those like Maskey or O’Dowd who are decent media performers – that their big problem is they can’t answer a question that Gerry hasn’t already answered. McGuinness can ad lib and so can Gildernew to some extent, but it’s not a talent they’ve encouraged. Since we know Ritchie is best when she’s spontaneous, why the scripting?

Not quite as bad as Cecil Walker, I suppose. But set that alongside Fearghal McKinney’s performance on the Politics Show – Gerry Kelly isn’t the world’s best debater, but I thought Fearghal was completely lost without a script. Never underestimate the SDLP’s ability to fritter away a position through sheer incompetence.


3. Garibaldy - April 23, 2010

Ruane will indeed be happier, but my money is still on Ritchie. Especially seeing as Ruane has proven even more incompetent as a minister than that performance was from Ritchie. I missed the politics show with McKinney and Kelly, but saw Adams and Ford et al there now. Thought they both did grand. I had forgotten how much I am wound up by Agnew (I skipped the second debate, might watch it later but saw him on Newsline). He has the mark of a boy who would introduce not only water charges but every other sort of charge he could think of.

And yes, the SDLP is proving to be its own worst enemy. You would have thought they would have learnt the lesson of retiring their most popular people all at the same time, but apparently not.


4. irishelectionliterature - April 23, 2010

I thought Robinson looked dreadful and shifty, his eyes so sunken that at times you could only see the bottom half of them.
Ritchie was shocking and her emphasis on Westminister way over the top.
I presume there was none of the high tech voter reaction and polls that took place during/after the debate in the UK.


5. que - April 23, 2010

Well the opening speech by ritchie was classic in how not to do it but worse it seemed like she could play the set pieces very stilted but the ad hoc stuff she could only jab a few times and go quiet. At the very end when gerry talked about Afghanistan she just opened and closed her mouth like an incoherent child. It was very dissapointing to be honest.
Peter Robinson – there is fire in that man’s belly and a spine in his back.

your point about retiring people and the sdlp. I think there flaw was not retiring the big names but rather failing to build a middle management /lower rungs that could grow into the shoes. God forbid but if anyone of the big, remaining SDLP names got hit by a bus who could even make an attempt at standing in for them. The other big parties could role out many options but the SDLP dont have that depth. Thats why they get caught at retiring time. They strung out the old boys too long


6. Garibaldy - April 23, 2010


I agree that there was a major failure to bring people along. But I also think that Durkan (probably in alliance with Attwood) pushed people to go all at once to get new faces out. What they should have done was stand the old people, win the seats, and then retire them gradually over say 18 months and nominate replacements. I will never understand why they never did that. Rank stupidity. I think the UUP made similar mistakes, and I’m not entirely convinced that the same mistakes aren’t being made again by those parties and others.

Just saw Alasdair McDonnell on Newsline. He said he did a good job as an MP even if he did say so himself. It is that kind of brashness that winds people up, but also that kind of robustness that the SDLP could have done with.


7. Garibaldy - April 23, 2010

Agree with you about Robinson having fire in the belly by the way.


8. Quinn Febray - April 23, 2010

‘Adams maintained that he was never in it, never asked to join, and pointed out his involvement in politics stemmed from 1964 and 1965.’

ON the Late late Show a while back he said the same, that he couldn’t have joined since there ‘was no IRA’ before 1969. Given his account in ‘Before the Dawn’ in which the IRA certainly does exist in 1960s Belfast, bombing army recruiting offices and firebombing cop stations, his involvement in Billy McMillen’s election campaign, in the Belfast Housing Action Campaign and his family connections I actually think this latest spoof is more shameful than him denying having been a provo.


9. slug - April 24, 2010

I’ve said it elsewhere

*I can’t see that Ritchie was as bad as everyone says.

*She spoke the same way as she always did. Why are people only noticing her speaking style now?

Yes I would have voted for Alistair McDonnell if only because they have a fall back on Ritchie later. She should have been given more time to get ready for leadership.


10. Garibaldy - April 24, 2010

We’ll have to agree to disagree on Ritchie’s performance Slug. I still think it was dreadful. Watching Newsline tonight with the four people sitting there dealing with questions, they all looked more comfortable than she did. I know some people have been saying it was early for her. I don’t really think that excuse works for someone who is an MLA and minister.


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12. Turgon - April 25, 2010

I think it is only fair to point out that Cecil Walker frequently seemed to fail to understand the questions. Walker was an honest man and afterwards stated that he had failed to hear many of the questions, which would help explain the apparent failure to understand. I think it is a matter of record that his hearing was poor.


Garibaldy - April 25, 2010


You’re absolutely right. I thought I had included the bit about him being unable to hear, but must have forgotten. I wasn’t intending to insult Walker, who I think was far from the worst in the world. But I also think the point holds that regardless of the reason for his bad performance, he was very, very badly damaged by it, and it resulted in a larger swing to Dodds than otherwise would have happened.


Turgon - April 25, 2010

I do not think you were being unreasonable at all. Walker was most foolish not to check if he could hear and say something beforehand if there was a problem.

Ronald Regan had extra amplifiers fitted during the presidential debates as his hearing was poor.


13. Mick Hall - April 25, 2010

Forgive me Garibaldy for mentioning this, but did any of these ‘leaders’ have any policies they wished to implement, or was it like the UK wide debate, yet another beauty contest?


14. Garibaldy - April 25, 2010

Policies, Mick? What are those? In fairness, there was some discussion of policies (such as Ritchie’s plan for creating 42,000 jobs), but it was more like the British debate. Partly, this was due to the questions coming from the audience – things like damage done to trust in politicians by the expenses scandal etc. I don’t think the questions themselves were policy-driven.


15. Leveller on the Liffey - April 25, 2010

I don’t think the studio or TV audience (or the hosts) want policy expositions and the format doesn’t lend itself to that – that’s more for the one-on-ones with Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil and Adam Boulton.


16. Mick Hall - April 25, 2010


I totally disagree with you here, I see it as the other way around, people like Marr and Bolton are the ones who wish to stick to personalities and spin as they and their editors/producers vet not only the make up of the studio audience, by controlling the allocation of tickets, but also by demanding the studio audiences put their questions forward on a slip before the programe starts, and they then decide which members of the audience will be called to ask a question.

I would not be surprised if they brief the politicians about the type of questions they will be asked before the programe starts.


17. The leaders debate: style matters « Slugger O'Toole - April 26, 2010

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