The leaders of the five main parties gathered in South Belfast today for the UTV Leaders Debate, which is the first of two of these debates in the 2022 Assembly Election campaign. Marc Mallett as usual was the moderator and there were two new faces with Doug Beattie and Jeffrey Donaldson taking part for the first time. The experienced debaters returning from 2017 were Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long and Michelle O’Neill.
The debate was divided into three main themes, Executive formation/constitution, cost of living and healthcare.
You can watch the debate back here
With so many undecideds, this was a great moment for the leaders to really engage with the public and mix it up. Yet most of this debate will have to be viewed as a missed opportunity. Not because the format didn’t allow for interaction, but because of the inertia that has marked the 2022 campaign so far. Oddly for an NI election the constitutional discussions were some of the more tame parts of it, the leaders really got stuck in over the cost of living crisis and the formation of an executive.
Each of the parties stuck with their scripts. For Jeffrey Donaldson it was about warning about a border poll, For Michelle O’Neill it was about making history and working together, Naomi Long was about reforming government, Colum Eastwood drew upon similar themes of working together and dealing with the cost of living crisis and Doug Beattie with a focus on health and the economy.
It took over 10 minutes for the debate to get going, each leader seemed to be waiting for the other to strike out and do something. More evidence of the small target approach that most of the parties have adopted.
In the second segment on the cost of living crisis the debate really got going with Donaldson battling against O’Neill, Long and Eastwood on to what extent the Executive can take action on the cost of living crisis and how quickly we can get an Executive reformed after the election. In this segment, the four leaders mentioned held their ground. Eastwood scored well on his delivery and strength, O’Neill on rebutting the party leaders forum proposal and Long on delivery.
Whilst Jeffrey was under pressure, the optics of the three attacking his proposals will work well with DUP voters and he benefitted form the fact that Beattie seemed muted during that segment of the debate.
Something else to remember whilst these leaders share one platform, they don’t share voter bases. Jeffrey Donaldson isn’t competing for votes with Eastwood or O’Neill and vice versa. He is competing with Beattie and to some extent Long. On that score, he came out of tonight in decent shape as being the only solid unionist voice that many voters will have heard.
For Nationalist voters, Eastwood did a a strong job in making his party’s voice heard and consistently performing well across the debate. For O’Neill, she seemed to take a bit of time to hit her stride, but in the second segment performed well on cost of living and healthcare.
Alliance were very present tonight with Naomi Long, she performed well and delivered a strong performance. That is bad news for anyone trying to dent their momentum.
Doug Beattie did not have a great night. He struggled through most of the debate to make his voice heard and seemed to be absent from the main exchanges. His style isn’t to mix it up and that’s ok, but in the flow of a debate that can mean you’re left out. When he spoke about issues like healthcare and taking politically brave decisions, he did well. There was room for more of that in this debate, but he needs to create space to use that.
The BBC will be hosting a leaders debate this Tuesday night at 9pm.
Scores for each party leader
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs