NI leaders in election debate first
Northern Ireland's four main political leaders have set out their stalls ahead of the forthcoming General Election in their first ever televised debate.
Thursday, 22 April 2010
In front of an audience of young and first time voters, there was a nervous start to proceedings but it did not take long for the sparks to fly.
The hour-long debate, hosted by political commentator Jim Dougal, saw clashes over electoral pacts, integrity in politics and abstentionism.
Read Ken Reid's Election blog: No Clangers
The first spat came when Sinn Fein was challenged over why elected party members do not take their seats in Westminster.
"I don't take my seat because I've elected not to take my seat - I'm an active abstentionist, these are lazy abstentionists," President Gerry Adams said.
"There are 646 MPs - the worst attenders are the ones from here and the SDLP particularly, which is making a great virtue out of this.
"This issue was one years ago - it's not only among the worst attenders, it supports the war in Afghanistan, it has made the point that in a hung parliament it'll be crucially important but it's already given away - if it wins seats - it's given them away because it's said it's going to support the Labour Party.
"It's done the deal already, without anything for that."
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie hit back, looking to "nail that lie" and stating that her party's members have always taken their Westminster seats because "we believe we have to be where it counts, when it counts - particularly on Northern Ireland business."
With some confusion over the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq - which Ms Ritchie said her party voted against - it was back to Mr Adams.
"I said you support the war in Afghanistan and if you voted against the war in Iraq, it shows you how little influence you have," he said.
There was less sparring on the unionist side of the house - but the DUP leader made clear his disdain for the UUP's pact with the "party of duck houses and moats and manicured gardens", the Conservative Party.
"Reg could be made by the leader of the Conservative Party if he was to become Prime Minister, Reg could be Chancellor," Peter Robinson said.
"Equally David Cameron could make him go through the lobbies and vote for cuts for Northern Ireland - and I'll leave it to you to decide which of those is more likely."
Nothing was off limits during the debate - Gerry Adams was questioned about his alleged IRA involvement, something he continues to deny.
"Why didn't you join the IRA?" Jim Dougal asked, only for Mr Adams to quickly return: "For the same reason you didn't."
On the question of the expenses scandal, Peter Robinson again stressed he was cleared of any wrongdoing over his financial affairs.
But that was not enough for the UUP leader Sir Reg Empey.
"People just don't understand why anybody, particularly a property developer, would give you a piece of land for effectively £5 - because, don't forget, there would be costs associated with buying and selling that land of maybe a couple of thousand pounds with the solicitor's fees and so on."
Overall this was a debate among four experienced politicians - there were no knock-out blows but no-one dropped the ball either, leaving it all down to the voters on polling day.
Later that evening, TUV leader Jim Allister told UTV Live Tonight it was a "very boring debate... monumentally dull, apart from when Mr Robinson was discomforted about the £5 land deal with no adequate answer to give (...) and the Ulster Unionists were trapped in a hopeless marriage with the Tories."
Alliance leader David Ford also criticised the performances after the debate.
"Is it any surprise that this debate was very uninspiring because it only reflected one side of politics here, the tribal side?" David Ford asked.
"The four party leaders appeared bereft of ideas and reverted to type in getting back to their tired old arguments".
Green candidate Steven Agnew said: "We're in a Westminster election in a time of recession. I'd rather talk about how we're going to get through this recession, help people in their homes move forward and create thousands of jobs across the UK through investment in the new green deal."
© UTV News