Mid Ulster Mail editor Michael McGlade reflects on the election debate filmed in Castledawson for BBC Northern Ireland’s The View and believes it was very much a case of ‘us and them’ but not as we know it.
A while ago, a press release came in with the figures for TV licence evasion in Mid Ulster, nothing unusual in that, except for the fact that one person was still paying for a black and white licence.
As they say, there are no flies on some people, who rail against the TV licence and question what exactly does it deliver for them.
Well in a word, or an acronym to be more precise, it’s the BBC we are paying for.
And last week, the national broadcaster left the comfort and security of their Belfast studios to host The View election special from the impressive factory floor of Moyola Precision Engineering.
Just one night after the leaders debate on UTV, the panel assembled for the Castledawson showdown, featured fewer political heavyweights, but that did not stop a number of stinging jibes and heated exchanges on a raft of issues, from abortion to education, voter apathy to what they might do, should they not succeed in the May 5 election - that was my question, designed by the producers to cool down the politicians, like horses who have just completed the Grand National.
Naomi Long was there for the Alliance, Fergal McKinney SDLP, Simon Hamilton DUP, Michelle O’Neill Sinn Féin and Danny Kennedy the Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionists.
Many political commentators have remarked on the slow and insipid start to the Assembly election debate.
It’s almost as if the malaise of many voters has spread to the politicians, who in fairness have been hit with one election after another in recent years.
Here in Mid Ulster we have had four elections in the last five years, and a further two voting days this year.
That reminds me - Patsy McGlone has been staring through my living room window for the past week from his lofty position on the lamppostMichael McGlade
There is little question, that the EU referendum has dimmed the focus on the Assembly election.
However, last Thursday there were enough sparks to keep the audience engaged as the parties set out their stalls on some of the big issues which have been dominating both the news and political agendas.
Having watched countless numbers of these political debates from Northern Ireland on television, I was waiting on the inevitable green and orange rows. That’s what we pay our licence for - is it not?
But it never materialised. Bizarrely, I felt a little short-changed, even though I believe that the predictability of these old chestnuts of parading and flags is the number one reason why so many people are turned off by politics here, but equally, are the biggest motivating factors for people coming out and actually voting.
However, there was still an ‘us and them’ dynamic in the make-shift studio sited within the vast factory.
The ‘us’ were Sinn Féin and DUP, while the ‘them’ were of course the rest of them.
Michelle O’Neill hit out at the wish lists from the two politicians on either side of her, but it was quickly pointed out that she was not referring to the DUP’s Simon Hamilton, but rather the SDLP and UUP.
The Sinn Féin Assembly member for Mid Ulster was also quick to pounce on her nationalist rival Fergal McKinney, and questioned whether a vote for the SDLP was actually a vote for opposition on the Stormont benches.
And a few minutes later, she was backed-up by Mr Hamilton in a swipe at Danny Kennedy.
The UUP man was responding to a question on dwindling public confidence in Stormont, to which he emphatically agreed and said the Executive was failing and in particular the two main parties and their leaders.
“You couldn’t keep the lights on,” said Mrs O’Neill in reference to Mr Kennedy’s term as DRD minister.
“Or cut the grass,” Simon Hamilton chipped in, quickly followed by “or measure pot-holes” by the Sinn Féin MLA.
It was an almost perfect tag-team performance from the two main parties, who will in all likelihood remain in power.
Responding to the same question on public confidence, former MP Naomi Long called for more transparency and progress on real issues.
“It would be wrong to say Stormont has not delivered and Northern Ireland is in a much better place, but we realise that much more can be done to realise the potential we have here.”
She said she wanted to see transparency in expenses and payments made to politicians and parties and that without this and progress in real issues, then the lack of public confidence in the Assembly would continue,
The number one issue which has dominated the headlines here - abortion - was also addressed during the debate.
But while the politicians all expressed their desire to treat the matter of the young mother prosecuted for buying abortion pills online, with sensitivity, it was clear that none of them were prepared to offer any solutions or take a definitive stand on the law, which has received widespread criticism across the UK and had some echoes of the outlandish comments made by US Republican candidate Donald Trump.
Abortion can make a massive difference come polling day, so it was no surprise that the politicians as Danny Kennedy said “tread very carefully”.
Emma who asked the question, said she was disappointed by the response of the panel and claimed the law was not stopping thousands of women travelling to England for an abortion or forcing them to obtain pills online.
Deirdre Gillespie, the principal of St Mary’s Grammar school voiced her concern over cuts to the education budget and the impact it could have on young people reaching their potential.
Simon Hamilton stayed clear of attacking Sinn Féin for their ministry of Education. Danny Kennedy claimed his party would make a proper job of education.
The economy, we are always told, is the cornerstone for any successful society, keeping people in jobs, is not only good for people’s living standards but also has major benefits for mental health and general well-being, argued Fergal McKinney, who was adamant that the people of Northern Ireland were being failed by the current Executive headed up by the two main parties Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Simon Hamilton, the outgoing Health Minister and former Finance Minister, said his party wanted to create 50,000 new jobs for Northern Ireland in the next Assembly.
Mr Hamilton said that the economy was something the Executive could take pride in and also the imminent reduced corporation tax.
In full knowledge, that I was missing out on Liverpool’s second leg European tie against Dortmund, which typically turned out to be the best ever game of football EVER, I was surprised to find how quickly the hour passed.
After the show ended I was given a tour of Moyola Precision Engineering impressive factory, which manufactures components for aircraft by Dessie Diamond. Dessie was just one of a number of people who did not get an opportunity to ask his question.
I was annoyed that the massive disaster that is the nonexistent community safety college at Desertcreat never made it on to the floor of the Castledawson factory.
And what about the Cookstown bypass? Future floods on Lough Neagh? Tourism in Mid Ulster? Upgraded electricity connection for business expansion etc, etc.
The very professional Mark Carruthers was of course very careful to steer the debate to Northern Ireland-wide issues, or else the rest of the country would have switched channels.
All those questions will have to wait to when the various candidates come knocking on my door and that reminds me - Patsy McGlone has been staring through my living room window for the past week from his lofty position on the lamppost.
When I sat down to write this while simultaneously watching The View on the BBC iPlayer, I had considered rating the candidates.
I don’t think I’ll bother, not worth the grief, especially in the run-up to an election, when political parties scrutinise their local media coverage. But if I were asked to pick a winner - it would be Naomi Long. Her earnest delivery, makes you feel that you are being spoken to by a person rather than a party.