UTV Election Debate: How each representative fared

-Credit: (Image: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)
-Credit: (Image: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye)


In the first televised debate from Northern Ireland during this UK General Election campaign, the leaders of the DUP, Alliance and the SDLP went head to head with UUP deputy leader Robbie Butler and Sinn Féin's John Finucane in what was an uncharacteristically civil discussion.

Anchored by UTV's deputy political editor Vicki Hawthorne, the debate lasted just over 48 minutes (not counting ad breaks) and saw the representatives trot out their well-rehearsed party lines on everything from what MPs do to the prospect of a border poll.

While the discussion was somewhat lacklustre, which is in no way a criticism of Vicki or the questions she put to the representatives, anyone paying even a minutiae of attention to politics in this part of the world recently could have written the script to this debate without having watched it.

Read more: Full list of candidates running in the General Election in Northern Ireland

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Gavin Robinson

The DUP's Gavin Robinson appeared almost presidential as he delivered his opening remarks. For the most part, it almost felt like the battle for East Belfast was playing out on the screens as he and Naomi Long butted heads more than once. However, it was clear that Gavin Robinson's focus was chasing the votes of the UUP and Alliance as he made little to no reference to Sinn Féin or the SDLP during the discussion.

Gavin Robinson was on the attack throughout the debate and the only firey exchange of the night came when he accused Naomi Long of not caring about unionist concerns over the Protocol and Windsor Framework, in a comment Naomi described as being "factually incorrect".

Gavin denied that his party had oversold the deal to restore Stormont despite having previously told the BBC's Nolan Show that "there should have been more cautious realism" from the party regarding their messaging around the command paper.

Mr Robinson also played into the age-old trope that Northern Ireland's politicians want to spend like Labour and tax like the Tories when he declared that he wasn't sure there would be a "strong appetite" for more fiscal devolution or revenue-raising measures from Stormont but that he is "in the business of supporting individuals in Northern Ireland."

John Finucane

A seasoned media performer, John Finucane focused on Sinn Féin's slogan for this campaign of "strong leadership, positive change" and securing better funding for public services. John set out how despite not taking their seats or voting in the House of Commons, his party's team of MPs meet with government ministers on a regular basis and have the ear of Brussels and the United States.

Mr Finucane saw down multiple attacks from the SDLP's Colum Eastwood over his party's policy on abstention and suggested comments that his party's votes could have changed the outcome of Brexit votes which were lost on single figures as a "rewriting of history".

John Finucane performed well as played to his base speaking briefly about his personal experience and saying that republicans "have not been found wanting" when it comes to reconciliation and that he "won't expect or demand reconciliation from anyone for any action that has ever taken place."

Naomi Long

Having been drawn first to make her opening remarks, Naomi appeared calm and collected as she delivered her 45-second monologue on why voters should vote for her candidates on July 4. Placing a focus on health, education, the economy and the environment, Naomi Long also emphasised the importance of reforming the institutions at Stormont so that no single party could collapse them again. When asked about the impact that her party could make with just a small number of MPs, Ms Long pointed to her time as MP for East Belfast between 2010 and 2015 when she successfully worked to ban double jobbing for politicians.

The Alliance leader brushed off a question on whether her party would support water charges, higher rates and introducing prescription charges but said that a focus needs to be placed on the cost of division in Northern Ireland and that political maturity requires difficult decisions such as tackling tax avoidance by the "super rich" and taxing corporations and companies who offshore their profits.

On the prospect of a border poll, Naomi said that she didn't attend the Ireland's Future event in Belfast because her "time was at a premium" and that her party will take a position on the constitutional future once a proposition is on the table but that her focus is on uniting Northern Ireland.

Colum Eastwood

A dab hand at these debates, this is Colum Eastwood's ninth election since taking charge of the SDLP in 2015. For the most part, Colum spent his time attacking Sinn Féin's policy of abstention and Naomi Long for Alliance not yet having a position on the constitutional question, in part due to his party haemorrhaging voters to both parties in recent years.

Colum Eastwood was keen to play up his party's relationship with Labour but insisted that he would hold their "feet to the fire" and accepted that ultimately, power rests in London despite his political aspirations.

On constitutional change, Colum challenged unionism on what they are doing to sell the union and talked up his party's New Ireland Commission and the work that they are doing to listen to unionist concerns around constitutional change.

Robbie Butler

Despite being somewhat media astute, Robbie Butler appeared slightly nervous as the debate got underway but was quickly back on track and raring to go.

Robbie saw down a question on why voters have opted against sending a UUP representative to Westminster by referring to "seven years of pain". Robbie Butler also accused Alliance of failing to "stop Brexit" and said that his party had opposed Brexit, the Protocol and the Windsor Framework despite his party leader having described the latter as "an important stepping stone" to rectifying the Protocol and having talked up the opportunities presented by the Framework.

At times, Robbie Butler also sounded remarkably like his Alliance opponent in Lagan Valley, Sorcha Eastwood when he talked about having "positive influence" and voters wanting to see change.

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