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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

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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

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At 18:24 on 23 April 2010, Diane wrote:
Jim Dougal failed to make best use of the incredible opportunity he was given – he languished in the past, allowed cheap politics to be the focus of the night and actively encouraged it! Reg, change the record – move on! I thought the debate would’ve factored on more intelligent discussion led by Jim Dougal, however, he simply allowed and encouraged more muck raking and trampling over old ground! Have we not moved on in the last few months? I wanted to hear what the politicians had to say about our future, about their manifestos, about party vision and instead Jim Dougal led them up and down the same garden path. How terribly disappointing and from such an experienced political commentator! I felt for Margaret Ritchie – even if she isn’t the greatest orator - at least the SDLP are willing to engage in real politics, unlike Sinn Fein, who hide behind this phrase of an ‘elected mandate’ to not attend Westminster! Unbelievable! Is that really what the Republican vote stands for? I also disagree with Ken Reid that Gerry scored points on the night – do you not mean he was ‘point scoring’ against Margaret Ritchie??? Peter gets my vote every time – how many of the other leaders can show such strength in the face of such adversity? Let’s Keep Moving Northern Ireland Forward!
At 15:20 on 23 April 2010, Claire wrote:
So Gerry was never in the IRA and Peter didnt buy land for a fiver, do these pair think we are stupid. Poor Margaret Ritchie, the only woman at a table of old fools.
At 15:16 on 23 April 2010, Frank wrote:
Gerry Adams - What a joke! The funniest bit was when Gerry started to talk about the economy, he must of had a read at the SDLP manifesto before he come on
At 14:54 on 23 April 2010, Amy wrote:
I thought SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie gave a sound performance, at least she offered something different from the grey old men politics!
At 14:12 on 23 April 2010, CK wrote:
How amateurish was that debate ! Just an hour and they still had to include ad breaks. And the leaders couldnt even stand ! Wot a joke and waste of time.
At 13:48 on 23 April 2010, Conor wrote:
I for one am glad that this was televised live because if nothing else it showed up the complete non-entity that is Margaret Ritchie and the SDLP. I can only assume that Alisdair McDonnell has done something pretty bad to upset the entire party becasue he musy be watching that thinking how on earth he lost that leadership contest. That aside I would hope many first time nationalist voters or traditional SDLP voters would open their eyes and ears to the drivel that continually comes from the mouths of the SDLP. They are not in a position to best represent the Nationalist community so vote for those who are. Not to get too one-sided but could I also urge Unionists not to go near any party who aligns itself with the Tory party and for the love of God & Ulster as it is so often put, do not give the TUV the time of day. Now vote with confidence whatever community you're from.
At 11:57 on 23 April 2010, Peter wrote:
I believe the SDLP are steaming towards electoral disaster with Margaret Ritchie at the helm. What on earth possessed them to elect her as their leader The level of bile & venom from the SDLP & their supporters towards Sinn Fein, particularly exposed by Sinn Fein's gesture in South Belfast, is a wonder to behold. What are they so bitter about?. What little chance they had of my vote is long gone!!!!
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