After the Leader’s Debate which aired on UTV last Wednesday, Tyler McNally looks at who the winners and losers were on the night. Hint, it could be everyone.
It goes without saying that we are set to witness one of most tumultuous elections since the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Since the crisis began, Northern Ireland has been subjected to years of crippling austerity, privatisation and heightened sectarian tension. In the last year we have seen the meteoric rise of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party in the UK, an event that put anti austerity politics back on the media agenda, albeit briefly.
We have seen Gerry Carroll elected to Belfast City Council who now looks set to make history, and be elected to Stormont alongside his comrade Eamonn McCann. On its own this is significant, but combined with the rise of a generation of young people that are angry with NI’s lack of Abortion and LGBTQ rights, it’s symbolic of the sea change that could pull the rug from under the legs of our ‘Big Five’ parties over the next period.
Starting on a high note, it was clear to those watching UTV’s debate that there was one clear winner, and it wasn’t even on the platform, the Left. Regardless of whether people are opting for Carroll’s Socialist politics in West Belfast, or the more moderate approach of the Green Party’s Clare Bailey in South Belfast, the appetite for something that breaks the consensus is palpable. Once the major driving force in urging younger workers and students to just not vote, the omni-shambles of Stormont is forcing people to seek out alternatives. In the last four years, the Green Party’s membership has nearly quadrupled, at least according to Party Leader Steven Agnew anyway.
With what has happened in mind, a normally noxious debate became interesting viewing as the leaders waited their turn to systematically alienate and shit on this emerging cohort of politicised young people.
Support for Equal Marriage is eye watering in its sheer size, yet there is little notion paid to the DUP’s stonewalling of any progress, mostly because they are supported by MLAs from nearly every party in Stormont. Other leaders try to hide this individual terror that is afflicted by their members as a matter of conscience, because human rights really ought to be a matter of decision for middle class, middle aged white men.
As much as we all can take something from this debate that makes us the real losers, no one loses to as large a degree as Women, to watch a debate which contains a fresh faced Colum Eastwood, who is only fresh faced because he is under 50 years old, brag about standing a ‘new generation’ of men and women as candidates. Only to launch into a 150 year old tirade that calls for the protection of unborn life, by throwing vulnerable women onto the judicial scrapheap, for accessing something widely accessible anywhere else in the UK.
“We are not a Pro Choice party” … “I totally disapprove of what she done” Martin McGuinness speaking during the UTV Debate.
And if that isn’t horrifying enough, Eastwood goes on to put a warm and affectionate front to this callous treatment of women by suggesting everyone ‘throws their arms around women in distress’. Given the SDLP’s clear position on women and their bodies, I wouldn’t think many would take Eastwood up on this offer of what is clearly, a malicious hug.
The agreement that was signed after many months of whatabouttery and talks about the past and welfare reform, formed a decent sized chunk of the debate. Some candidates opted for the ‘he fixed the road approach’ of rhyming off the places they visited and people they’ve spoken to. Others stayed in their comfort zone of constantly attacking Stormont, even though they must be aware that they benefit greatly from this instability and failure.
Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein Candidate, was the man to watch in this session. Referring to Fresh Start as ‘an opportunity to do things better’, he seems to have forgotten that this agreement has destroyed public sector jobs and will usher in a lower Corporation Tax rate – which will further damage public services. Did this even matter though? The man dropped any utterance of anti austerity rhetoric, opting instead for the lexicon of the responsible statesman.
McGuinness spent most of his time during the sessions on the Economy and Stormont shoring up his position, its difficult to put an anti cuts foot forward when you are implementing cuts after all. Sinn Fein are aware of the danger People Before Profit’s Carroll poses to them in West Belfast, he came second in last year’s Westminster vote which indicates very favourable odds for a seat. McGuinness’ interjections on the economy echoed this fear by emphasising responsibility and ‘good governance.’ I doubt that will be enough to put off Carroll’s supporters.
So yeah, we’re all losers for watching that debate, and the leaders of the ‘Big Five’ certainly lose for thinking this debate was taking place in 1861, if Mike Nesbitt is sounding like the most progressive voice in the room, you need to get the fuck out of that room. Debates and Oxygen Thieves aside, this election is an excellent opportunity for political forces that oppose austerity and support LGBTQ and Women’s rights to flex some muscle and toss the apple cart, we shouldn’t miss this opportunity.