The final act in a overwhelmingly unforgettable election campaign, Tuesday night’s BBC debate marked the first time party leaders were truly enthusiastic about one another.
This was the kind of debate that should have opened the election campaign but has so far failed to materialize.
It was understandable that Sinn Féin, knowing that it was a leader, tried to make this competition boring to reduce the risk of gaffes or controversy. The strange thing was how many of the other parties threw themselves into this by waging totally lifeless campaigns as well.
But nothing about this debate was muted. With the end in sight, the leaders suddenly jostled toward the finish line, aided by the supremely accomplished Jim Fitzpatrick, who unhurriedly urged recalcitrant politicians to respond.
From the start, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was the lynchpin, and it has remained so. Unlike Sunday’s UTV debate, which never developed due to constant commercial breaks, leaders had a chance to really engage.
Paradoxically, that suited both Sir Jeffrey and those opposed to him – which meant Naomi Long, Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood. He was repeatedly poked at by the DUP leader’s opponents, but for his main audience of potential voters he still stood the ground, kept his cool and pushed back – particularly against Ms O’Neill.
This was a far stronger performance from Sir Jeffrey than on Sunday. And yet there were points at which he made claims that would have taken weeks to dissect earlier in the campaign.
While much of the hour focused on the NI protocol, one listener informed the DUP leader that it was not a nationalist minister who built the Irish Sea border posts, but a DUP department.
Sir Jeffrey said: “The fact is that it was DEFRA’s UK Department that set up the infrastructure because the Secretary for Agriculture for Northern Ireland refused and ordered his officials not to do it.” built over the heads’ of Mr Poots’ department.
However, that answer wasn’t enough to convey what really happened. The border posts were built by Mr Poots’ officials after the DUP minister backed down on orders not to do so. DEFRA did not have to use its powers to formally contradict Mr Poots.
Instead, Mr Poots chose not to order his officers to oppose construction of the checkpoints because, at the time, DUP leader Arlene Foster clarified that she was not among the group of people who would fight against protocol and accepted that she had lost in this matter and had to accept the reality.
With Sir Jeffrey at the center of sharp arguments, UUP leader Doug Beattie was often a bystander. Mr. Beattie is a natural communicator, but when he did get to speak, he struggled to make original points.
Sir Jeffrey gave a mixed message on whether he would return to Stormont while protocol lasts, saying he “would be there on day one to meet the other parties to start talks on a three-year budget”. But then also said that the institutions needed to be sustainable and to have treated the protocol.
Mrs Long clashed with him on this, and at several points insisted on completing her point when Sir Jeffrey interrupted him. As he has done for weeks, the DUP leader initially dodged the obligation to take his seat as Lagan Valley’s MLA, which would mean giving up his MP seat. But finally, for the first time, he made a clear commitment. After several attempts, Mr Fitzpatrick asked Sir Jeffrey, “Will you be seated?” and the DUP leader replied, “Of course.”
Like Sir Jeffrey, Ms. O’Neill seemed raunchy at times. When asked if she would like a border survey after the election, she did not answer clearly. When asked about Sinn Féin adverts in US newspapers calling for a border election date, she again refused to give a straight answer, saying, “I want it when the time is right.”
When asked why she was shy about an election date at the border, Ms O’Neill said: “It’s about the cost of living, it’s about health…” With polite persistence, Mr Fitzpatrick tried again to get an answer: “So you’re going not to use an expanded mandate to argue for a border survey?”
She refused to answer clearly, saying the campaign for Irish unity would “continue regardless of the outcome of this election”.
Mr Eastwood said that “the only person focused on a border poll in this campaign is Jeffrey Donaldson. I mean, what is this?
Mr Beattie was strongest on health, reminding audiences of Robin Swann’s performance as Health Secretary and promising an NHS open seven days a week. Ms O’Neill would not commit to taking over the Department of Health, simply saying that “health would matter”.
Sir Jeffrey was pressured over whether a return to government was necessary to deal with the health crisis. Of course it is. But the reality is that even with Stormont, the executive couldn’t agree to the multi-year budget that health requires.
Ms. Long was the only leader focused on the need for reform of Stormont’s broken structures. Right now, it seems unlikely that there will be government next week — and even less likely that there will be a form of government that could work.
https://www.independent.ie/news/at-last-a-spirited-leaders-debate-but-the-scale-of-stormonts-brokenness-is-ignored-41612987.html A spirited debate from the leaders at last…but the extent of Stormont’s brokenness is ignored