With the first nauseating leaders’ debate behind us, Joe Nawaz picks apart the key moments so you don’t have to suffer the full debate, like he did.
With the crushing inevitability of an abused petition of concern, the televised leaders debate rolled around this week, offering a very tasty price on elderly twine in the process. The cameras did their bit for what the establishment likes to pretend is democratic accountability by spending an hour filming the vigorously rehearsed furrowed brows of the ‘Big Five’. We’re of course talking ‘Big’ in the same sense that Grandmaster Flash’s Five were ‘Furious’, and I happen to know the Furious Five were a pretty sanguine bunch (at least until that unfortunate litigation business).
“The Stormont leader’s debate at the Lyric Theatre” trilled the announcer gaily. “One failing edifice inside another, a grim Russian doll of institutional atrophy, symbolically reinforcing its parochial limitations by there being only two fucking ‘dolls’” she forgot to add.
Host Mark Mallet started with the most pertinent question of the night. “What purpose does Stormont actually serve?” It would remain unanswered, replaced with a shit-pile of soggy platitudes that the vanities would have trouble igniting.
It would of course be wrong in every way to reduce the leaders of the “Big Five” to caricature, but it was fun to guess how Steve Bell would have drawn these people. Mike Nesbitt would be an animated ‘sponsored by Bogarts’ sign, David Ford would be a freshly exhumed cadaver, who coughed dust with every cryptic utterance, Colum Eastwood would be a giant raised eyebrow and so on. Such idle deliberation served in part to keep the eyelids open during vast swathes of on-message tedium. Opening statements ranged from “You and your family deserve better”, “When you look at Stormont, it probably makes you angry”, “Stronger, safer” all the way through to “Positive leadership, looking forward”, “vision, policy and people”. To be honest, I got distracted by a bit of gravel that had somehow got stuck to my big toe during these opening platitudes, so I’ll leave you to match these to their respective blandidate. Just for fun like.
Before I get to the disgrace that was the abortion question, it’s entirely unfair, yet perfectly true to say that the opening gambits were extrapolated upon throughout the evening, to fill out non-answers to questions on which party is best on health, economy, education and ‘the like’. It’s always amusing to see the shinners justifying their corporation tax stance with every reason other than, “we want it to be the same as in the south so it’ll feel a bit more like we’re the same as them”. Kind of like giving yourself a dead arm to make it feel like… well, never mind.
The abortion question came up, perhaps surprisingly. Let’s just say, when Mike Nesbitt sounds like the most progressive voice in the room, you know you’re not in Kansas Avenue any more.
“We’re a pro-life party” boasted Eastwood. Arlene used the word “traditional” – that creepy, cosy, maddening password that seems to inoculate many unionists from basic empathy.
Martin McGuinness joined his unionist in rejecting the 1967 Abortion Act being introduced. For a self-styled progressive, one can only assume this is because it keeps the north that little less British. Ford spluttered something about conscience, which for a minister in possession of the justice portfolio, is somewhat alarming. Several of the Big Five brayed emotively about wrapping their arms around women who are victimised by our disgustingly repressive reproductive laws. An only slightly less extreme variant on getting a hug from the psychopath who’s about to add your head to his fridge collection.
Tossed into this depressing melange of non-consenting consensus, were 47 mentions of Arlene’s Five Point Plan (we’ve taken to calling her Joe Stallin’ round our way), closely followed by Martin’s somewhat stale reiteration of Fresh Start. If that wasn’t enough, David Ford wanted to be Liam Neeson when he grew up. Or something like that. It had morphed into an uneasy swirl of light, colour, shapes and reassuring noises by the end. It was all a bit reminiscent of that woozy “going under” anaesthetic feeling before my circumcision. And like that experience, when the world eventually came back into focus again, it’s fair to say I felt somewhat bereft.