It was billed as a “candidates’ debate” by UTV, but last night there was almost no debate between the six main European candidates.
In a programme where the number of candidates, limited time and repeated breaks for advertisements stifled any real debate, each of the main candidates managed to avoid their major fear of falling apart in such a public setting.
But even many of the party spin doctors, who joined journalists to watch the programme being recorded in Belfast yesterday afternoon, were less than enthralled as they watched on.
During the programme, the DUP’s Diane Dodds defended the massive EU subsidies to farmers, arguing that farming is “absolutely vital” to the Province’s economy and a sector which has performed well as other sectors have contracted during the recession.
The other candidates broadly agreed, with TUV leader Jim Allister stating that without such subsidies, “undoubtedly our food would be much more expensive”.
UUP MEP Jim Nicholson said that farming was “our greatest opportunity of an industry to move forward”. Alliance candidate Anna Lo agreed, but said that farmers had a “moral duty” to also protect the environment.
As the debate moved on to the EU, SDLP candidate Alex Attwood said that to leave the EU would be a mistake and claimed that every person in Northern Ireland is £1,200 better off each year as a result of EU membership.
Ms Lo said that “even talking about an in/out referendum creates uncertainty for our businesses”. And Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson said that leaving Europe would not be in the interests of farmers who benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy.
In a second, shorter, debate between the smaller parties, UKIP’s Henry Reilly said that immigration was causing “social tensions across the UK”, but Conservative candidate Mark Brotherston said “he totally disagreed”, arguing that immigration “culturally enriches” the UK.
NI21’s Tina McKenzie claimed that “most people in Northern Ireland are in severe fuel poverty” but Green candidate Ross Brown said that his party was staunchly opposed to fracking, which he said would not reduce energy prices.
l Tonight the BBC will broadcast a Spotlight Special election debate between the six main parties’ European election candidates.
The debate (BBC1, 10.35), which will feature the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP, SDLP, Alliance and TUV, will be chaired by veteran BBC journalist Noel Thompson.