Leaders of five biggest parties clash at debate [ and their rating below]

Posted By: February 17, 2017

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Friday, February 17, 2017

  THE leaders of Stormont’s five main parties clashed on RHI and Brexit in their first TV debate of the 2017 election campaign – but nobody emerged from the encounter as a clear victor.

  UTV’s Havelock House was the setting for the debate, which unlike last year’s corresponding program was not recorded in front of a live audience.

  News anchorman Marc Mallet pitched the questions in a lively if largely predictable one-hour broadcast.

  Asked to set out her priorities ahead of the poll, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the election was about who set Stormont’s future direction.

  She insisted her party could secure the best post-Brexit deal for the north because of its influence on the British government while claiming the DUP had ensured the RHI would not cost the predicted £490m over the next 20 years.

  “Gerry Adams and his radical agenda” was also mentioned several times.

  In one of the more spontaneous parts of the debate, Mrs. Foster was challenged first by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and then Mr. Mallet on where the DUP secured the funds to pay for costly pro-Brexit adverts in the British media.

Despite saying that she would reveal the identity of the mystery donor, the exact source of the cash remains unknown.

  “[The funds] are from an organization in England that wants to see the union kept and make sure we can have a United Kingdom because it was a national vote,” she said.

  Ms. O’Neill said the election had come about as a result of DUP “arrogance and contempt” and that Sinn Féin wanted an assembly that “builds bridges.”

  She repeated her assertion that her party would not accept Mrs. Foster as first or deputy first minister until the public inquiry into the RHI scandal had concluded.

“I want to lead our party into government and make sure we share power with people who are wedded to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement,” she said.

  “We need to bring society into the modern era.”

  Mike Nesbitt rounded on the DUP and Sinn Féin, claiming the past decade of devolution had been characterized by “incompetence, arrogance, and cronyism.”

  “They’ve had ten years, and frankly they’ve fluffed it – no budget, no program for government – 10 years of disappointment and debacle,” he said.

  The Ulster Unionist leader accused Mrs. Foster of peddling the “politics of fear” by highlighting the possibility that Sinn Féin could emerge as Stormont’s largest party.

  Colum Eastwood also highlighted the RHI scandal, saying “one person on the panel designed it (Mrs. Foster) and another (Ms .O’Neill) let them away with it”.

  The SDLP leader added that the North needed special EU status and warned that Brexit was “the most dangerous thing to face us since partition.”

  Naomi Long said Alliance would have the same demands for joining a new executive as it did last May.

  She said her party would be seeking assurances that there was a will to tackle para-militarism and promote integrated education.

John Manley rates their performances
Irish News. Belfast. Friday, February 17, 2017
16 UTV performance rating JM News

Mike Nesbitt
Always at ease in a television studio, the former news anchorman inevitably focused on Arlene Foster’s association with RHI and the DUP and Sinn Féin’s record in government. Meanwhile, he said his party would be “willing partners” in an executive if the opportunity arose, stressing the need to work in a “spirit of reconciliation.” He was also keen to highlight how the two governing parties were slow to endorse a public inquiry into RHI. Mr. Nesbitt insisted there is an appetite for change and that he will “put the country first.”

Score 8/10

 Michelle O’Neill

Clearly briefed to stick to the message of “equality, respect, and integrity in government,” Sinn Féin’s new Northern leader was competent in her first leaders’ debate but not outstanding. In contrast to Martin McGuinness last year, her main target was the DUP’s “arrogance and contempt.” She also attacked the SDLP for a decade-long failure to vote for a budget in the executive and called on the Irish government to “step up to the plate” in Brexit negotiations. She claimed to have “grasped the nettle” of health service reform and was adamant throughout that the DUP were the architects of the RHI scandal.

Score 7/10

Arlene Foster

Potentially the DUP leader had most to lose from this debate as her record on RHI was publicly scrutinized. Mrs. Foster did her best to divert attention with numerous mentions of “Gerry Adams and his radical agenda,” despite the fact she’d been in government with his party for the past decade. She looked uneasy when ambushed with questions about how the DUP paid for expensive pro-Brexit adverts in the British press but escaped supplementary questioning on what could have been an embarrassing issue. Her die-hard supporters may believe her claims of “political smearing” around RHI, but others will be more skeptical.

Score 7/10

 Naomi Long

Alliance’s message of fixing Stormont’s “broken politics” has validity but can sometimes sound a little tired. Mrs. Long does her best to reinvigorate the argument though is sometimes unsure where exactly to direct her criticisms. In this debate, the DUP and UUP were the main targets while conceding that she would work with both if the circumstances were favorable. She managed to raise the biggest laugh with her description of Mike Nesbitt’s party as the “lothario of Northern Ireland politics.”

Score 8/10

 Colum Eastwood

He didn’t go as far as Mike Nesbitt in saying he’d give his second preference vote to the UUP, but the SDLP leader did defend the idea of “transferring on a cross-community basis.” He managed to attack the DUP and Sinn Féin over RHI, highlighting how both had initially been reluctant to have a public inquiry. He stressed the negative aspects of Brexit while highlighting the closeness of the executive’s two biggest parties before their acrimonious divorce.