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TV election debate fails to fire the imagination

A subdued debate reflected what has been a humdrum campaign to date. Picture by Hugh Russell

The leaders of the five largest Stormont parties went head-to-head last night in the first major TV debate of the election campaign. Political Correspondent John Manley assessed their performance

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It's fair to say nobody emerged victorious or defeated last night from the first televised leaders' debate of the assembly election campaign.

The one-hour UTV programme, recorded earlier in the day at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, saw few sparks fly and no decisive blows landed.

Host Marc Mallet was his usual polished and polite self, though the decision to use the final five precious minutes for a light-hearted question on which actors would be best suited to play the respective politicians was somewhat ill-advised.

First Minister and new DUP leader Arlene Foster joined Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in extolling the benefits of last year's Fresh Start Agreement, though they tended to overlook the fact that the crisis which preceded it was much of their own parties' making.

Given the floor to sell herself to the electorate, Ms Foster highlighted her five-point plan unveiled at last week's manifesto launch which she believes will create a "stronger, safer Northern Ireland".

Mr McGuinness meanwhile spoke of a delivering "positive and responsible leadership" in a society where everybody's opinion is respected.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and his Alliance and SDLP counterparts David Ford and Colum Eastwood pressed the need for change at Stormont, playing down their role – albeit a minority one – in the executive's failings.

Mr Nesbitt lamented the nine years Sinn Féin and the DUP had dominated the assembly but said a "refreshed" UUP now had the vision to make Stormont work.

Like the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists will wait for the outcome of the post-election negotiations on the programme for government before committing themselves to join the executive.

Mr Eastwood was reasonably impressive in his first TV debate as leader, saying his party offered the opportunity to "look beyond the past" and build a better future.

The Alliance leader accused the big two of being "on permanent rewind" and said his party could offer a fresh approach.

There was, however, little to get excited about in the largely subdued debate, which reflected what has been a pretty humdrum campaign to date.

There were few interruptions from opponents, little audience applause and no killer blows.

None of the participants said anything contentious or controversial, perhaps with the exception of Mr Nesbitt, who cast Liz Hurley to play him on screen.

Arguably the most lively section of the debate was the discussion around abortion, where all the politicians, with the exception of Ms Foster, were united in believing that prosecuting a young woman for procuring a termination was not the correct course of action.

There then followed much recrimination as the representatives sought to apportion blame for the failure to amend aspects of the Justice Bill dealing with abortion.

Ostensibly there was little to differentiate the parties on their vision for the economy, education and the health service – and perhaps even less to separate the participants in terms of performance.

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How they rated:

Arlene Foster – Recovered her composure after an initial fluff and was solid but not outstanding – 6/10

Martin McGuinness – Uncharacteristically stilted at times and got niggled by Colum Eastwood more than once – 6/10

David Ford – Firm and forthright but failed to set the debate alight – 5/10

Mike Nesbitt – Smooth and professional with a bounce in his step – 7/10

Colum Eastwood – Assured performance that belied his relative youth – 7/10

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