Jude Collins

Friday, 22 April 2011

The UTV debate: a sheep in sheep's clothing

Love hurts, and so did the leaders' debate on UTV last night. Afterwards, Ken Reid strove mightily to talk it up as a flame to the blue touch-paper of the election but nah - nowhere near. It ranged from painful to impressive but never fiery...Oh, OK. The bit where Robinson told Elliott 'That is a lie - from hell!' (hadn't heard that phrase before) was a bit fiery but otherwise, the post-debate analysis was more fun. And that's even allowing for the fact that Darwin Templeton and Noel Doran joined Ken on the panel.

First, the awful stuff. Margaret Ritchie. Oh dear, oh dear. No, not car-careening-over-cliff viewing but certainly car-bouncing-and-scratching-and-shrieking-downhill-into-a-river viewing. To give the woman her due, some things were better. Gone was the red blazer, replaced by a little black number with a string of pearls.Mmmm, yes - not bad. And she has recently learnt to soften her tone, so she doesn't always sound as though she's chewing on bits of metal. Counter-balancing that, she made two serious mistakes. Firstly, she kept raising her hand to get Marc Mallett's attention and he kept on ignoring her and saying 'OK, let's go on to another item'. It looked terribly weak. Secondly, she kept allowing the presenter or some of the other candidates to talk over her. Maggie would be half-way through a point and presenter Marc would say 'Thank you for that Margaret Ritchie, time now to...' Or one of the other candidates - usually Robinson - would make a two-footed challenge mid-sentence, and ask a killer question or bludgeon her with a heavy statistic. It made her look terribly weak. Had it been Alasdair McDonnell, Robinson would have got two feet in his face in return.

Tom Elliott. It was a, what shall we say, brave decision for the UUP to make Elliott their leader. Either you love him - good rugged rural stock, plain and outspoken, opposite of the ghastly twitchy Trimble; or you hate him - what in God's name is that big culchie doing pretending to be a leader? Last night he wasn't too bad but he wasn't too good either. If he'd kept his head the time he riled Robinson, he could have done himself some big favours, but he looked wobbly throughout, especially when Robinson told him 'You said you'd show us the quotation, show it to us then!'. And poor Tom couldn't.

David Ford. I like Ford. Yes I know, I should wash my mouth out, but I do. He looks kind of odd, he should sue his dentist, he's bald (how do bald people manage, I wonder?) and his skin looks sort of stretched. But he's a cool under pressure and he tends to have facts and figures ready for any occasion. Unfortunately last night he said water charges are coming. Of course they are but not yet, and nobody's going to thank you if you tell them an exocet missile is headed for their family finances, even and especially if it is.

Peter Robinson. A miraculous performance, in the sense that he's really Lazarus in disguise. Not much over a year ago he was politically dead and buried; now he's unionism's top man again and nobody asks him a thing about Iris or that piece of land or any of the bad, bad stuff that was everywhere, the night he sat down and did that sick-making interview with the 'The Best Dad In The World' sign positioned behind him. And he got lucky last night - he was positioned between Ritchie and Ford. Maybe at times he looked too comfortable, verging on smug, especially when he laughed at things David and Maggie were saying . But from where Robinson was twelve months ago to where he is this morning - miraculous.

Martin McGuinness. The Sinn Féin leader in the north has a speaking skill none of the others come near: he knows how to insert pauses. He uses them judiciously and they make him sound relaxed, they make his audience listen for his next words, he sounds like a man thinking and talking rather than reading a tedious autocue. Elliott tried to nail McGuinness with the bit about republicans not giving information to the police, but that allowed McGuinness to tell him he was a cheap-shot johnny and anyone knowing anything should pass it to the police. McGuinness says he's not concerned about the possibility of becoming First Minister after the May elections. Why would he be? Throughout last night's debate, he looked and sounded as though he already is.

But for all that it was a dull debate. Part of the problem was that the five leaders ran the debate rather than presenter Marc Mallett, who looked light-weight. More tellingly still, the questions were all put by Mallett, not a single question directly from the audience. So why have an audience, except you like being in a studio full of sheep? Awful.


  1. It pains me a little to say it, but Mrs Ritchie was incredibly irritating live. However, the handraising thing was unique to her - Martin McGuinness kept doing it as well. Margaret's real failing was that she was the only leader who seemed to keep insisting on reciting bits of stump speeches - even Tom Elliott seemed a lot more able to actually "debate". She seemed to start every sentence with "We in the SDLP…" and so on. Your point about Dr Al is a keen one.

    About thirty seconds into the Elliott-Robinson ruckus, I leaned to the person on my left and said, "You've won it Tom, but only if you stop now…" He did not.

    The central three - yes, three - seemed to, at all times, be playing the team of statesmen, whereas the outside two were just that. It almost felt a little stage-managed.

    One thing that did amuse me greatly was how, during every break, Martin and Tom seemed to be engaged in some quiet hilarity...

    As a side note, some of the questions did come from the audience - or at least, were inspired. Many audience members were asked to submit questions in the run-up. However, I would agree that this is really a bit useless if the host channels them all. I thought Marc Mallett did fairly well though, he managed to quietly outtalk a couple of leaders on occasion. And not just poor Maggie.

  2. David Ford is quite posh Dulwich College he went to. Grew up in Kent none of the others were educated at private school as far as I know.

  3. Good (and interesting) points, Pete. I should of course have added 'and the camera caught her doing it' re Maggie Ritchie and the finger-raise. It could happen to anyone. The sin is when you're caught.

  4. Anon - I always wondered about D Forde's accent, esp since he made some play in the debate about his lineage being local. You've enlightened me - thanks.

  5. Adams did a lot of that hand raising thing during the election debates as well - never works.

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