SDLP leader absent yet again from final TV debate

Noel Thompson hosts BBC Northern Ireland's NI Leaders' Debate with panellists, from left, Mike Nesbitt (UUP); Naomi Long (Alliance); Mark Durkan (SDLP); Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein) and Nigel Dodds (DUP)
Noel Thompson hosts BBC Northern Ireland's NI Leaders' Debate with panellists, from left, Mike Nesbitt (UUP); Naomi Long (Alliance); Mark Durkan (SDLP); Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein) and Nigel Dodds (DUP)

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell missed another major election debate on Tuesday night – and found that the man he asked to stand in for him seemingly criticised him on live television.

The South Belfast veteran’s absence from the three main debates of the campaign and from several major hustings debates in his own constituency have attracted increasing comment.

Dr McDonnell’s limited number of appearances during the campaign are particularly unusual given that his seat is thought to be under threat.

Hours ahead of what was billed as the BBC’s ‘leaders’ debate’, the SDLP withdrew Dr McDonnell and instead sent a former leader, Mark Durkan, in his place.

In fact, there was only one other leader on the panel – Mike Nesbitt – but with each of the other Executive parties, their leader is not standing for election to Westminster.

Dr McDonnell’s absence was compounded by one of the first things said by Mr Durkan.

When asked about Dr McDonnell’s exceptionally poor voting record at the House of Commons, Mr Durkan appeared to be withering about his party leader: “He’s caught with a dual mandate, something I made sure I was free from.”

In the debate itself, little new territory emerged from any of the party representatives. Mr Durkan, who has also ably deputised for Dr McDonnell on UTV’s debate and on Newsnight’s Northern Ireland debate, pressed Sinn Fein repeatedly on its refusal to attend Westminster.

For the second time in a week, Martin McGuinness responded that for Sinn Fein not taking their seats is a “principled position”, seemingly ruling out any role for republicans in a hung Parliament – even should that lead to the Conservatives remaining in power.

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds denied that it was taking a “begging bowl” approach to the prospect of a hung Parliament but said that people would expect the party to negotiate the best deal possible for Northern Ireland.

Mr Nesbitt said, “If abstentionism ever had any validity, its day has long gone” and told Mr McGuinness that narrow votes such as those on whether to go to war in Syria could be decided by a handful of MPs.

Alliance’s Naomi Long said the election was “not about unionism but nationalism”.

Later, as Mr McGuinness pressed Mr Dodds about Jim Wells’s comments linking gay marriage and child abuse, Mr Dodds retorted: “You’ve never apologised for IRA murders.”

Mr Nesbitt claimed that during the talks which led to the Stormont House Agreement, Sinn Fein had made demands over welfare reform which would have cost £1.6 billion over several years, but had ultimately settled for a fraction of that amount before more recently reneging on that agreement.

Mr Dodds said there was “no way” his party would vote for the sort of further cuts to the welfare budget as set out by the Conservatives.

Mr Nesbitt said that Scottish nationalists had achieved far more than Irish nationalists.

There was derisive laughter from the audience as Mr McGuinness responded to that point by arguing that Irish nationalists had been committed to securing a united Ireland by “solely peaceful and democratic means”.

Mr Dodds said of that claim: “I wish it had always been the case that he believed that... there was never any excuse for violence.”

Mr Durkan said that his party “will be no part of putting the Tories back into government” but that “Sinn Fein [seats] will never count against them”.

Responding to the debate, TUV leader Jim Allister said “these are the parties that have brought us squander at Stormont”, while Ukip’s David McNarry said it was “complete and utter tripe”, while Green Party leader Steven Agnew said that his party would “stand against austerity”.