Dull debate brings down the curtain on a limp campaign

Noel Thompson pictured ahead of the debate with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn F�ins Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance Party leader David Ford. Picture: William Cherry
Noel Thompson pictured ahead of the debate with UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn F�ins Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance Party leader David Ford. Picture: William Cherry

A limp Assembly election campaign last night drew to a conclusion with a televised leaders debate which failed to provide any final spark just over a day before the polling stations open.

To a noticeable extent, the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness focussed their fire on UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood respectively rather than attacking each other.

The closest which Mr McGuinness came to directly criticising the DUP during the BBC debate was when he denounced the “doom and gloom messages” about what would happen if he was First Minister.

Mrs Foster robustly defended the DUP’s decision to centre its campaign around the message that Mr McGuinness must be kept out of the First Minister’s job at all costs.

The DUP leader drew attention to the fact that the Deputy First Minister supports a united Ireland but was much more aggressive in taking on Mr Nesbitt than in confronting Mr McGuinness.

Likewise, the Sinn Fein veteran took every opportunity to attack Mr Eastwood but showed little inclination to tangle with his DUP partner in Stormont Castle.

Indeed, there was more support for each other than criticism between the DUP and Sinn Fein – parties which ostensibly are at opposite ends of the political spectrum – with Mr McGuinness speaking warmly about Mrs Foster as a “friend of the peace process”.

In the early exchanges, Mr Nebsitt accused the DUP of “dog whistle politics” and said it was running “project scaremonger” over its claim that if voters do not vote for the DUP then Mr McGuinness could be First Minister.

Referring to the DUP ‘letter from Arlene’ distributed to voters in North Belfast which warned that voting the wrong way could see a return to “the bad old days”, Mr Nesbitt highlighted that those words had been omitted from DUP literature sent out in South Belfast and Lagan Valley.

Mrs Foster claimed that the “bad old days” letter was a “first draft” and denied the letter was negative, saying it was “very positive”, setting out her “five-point plan”.

But, borrowing the words of Irish News journalist Brendan Hughes, he claimed that the First Minister’s much-vaunted “five-point plan” was actually the five-word plan – “do not mention Peter Robinson”.

Mrs Foster insisted that the identity of the First Minister was of great significance.

But Alliance leader David Ford said that “about the only difference is who gets to shake the Queen’s hand first when she visits”.

Analysis: McGuinness tried to squash Eastwood, but failed to do so