NI election Leaders Debate: last word from party heads

It came late in the campaign, and late in the BBC One schedule, but Tuesday night's feisty exchanges between the five main Stormont parties finally injected a bit of bite into what's seemed a lacklustre campaign.

The problem with judging the winners and losers is that as an observer you have to second guess what the average voter wants - an aggressive exchange which might appeal to one viewer could prove a complete turn off for another.

On Twitter and the blogosphere, most watchers put Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness out front.

Particular invective rained down on Margaret Ritchie.

But the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News reached different conclusions.

The Telegraph scored David Ford top with 8/10, followed by Margaret Ritchie and Peter Robinson on 7/10, with Martin McGuinness and Tom Elliott joint bottom on 6/10.

The Irish News gave Tom Elliott a boost with 8/10 and Margaret Ritchie the wooden spoon down on 4/10.

In the middle came David Ford on 7/10, Martin McGuinness on 6/10 and Peter Robinson on 5/10.

Which only goes to show it's all in the eye of the beholder. The News Letter didn't attempt a similar performance table.

Straight jabs

If it had been a boxing match, I would have judged Margaret Ritchie up on points.

She had some of the best straight jabs, including her reference to Martin McGuinness's bout of "Peter-itis" and her description of David Ford as a "lapdog".

But the SDLP leader needs to remember that in a TV studio it's not just what you say but how you look when you deliver your lines.

The cameras caught her smiling at her own jokes which wasn't very impressive.

Despite one heated exchange with Tom Elliott, the programme will be remembered as one in which Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness played a "nice man, not at all nasty man" double act.

Mr Robinson seemed to revel in attacks on his "cosy relationship" with Mr McGuinness, insisting people like them to work together.

Martin McGuinness wore his "Chuckle Brother" badge as a symbol of pride, maintaining it was an attack which had backfired on those who made it.

I was so moved by the first and deputy first's display of brotherly love that I almost forgot it was actually Mr McGuinness who stood back after lighting the blue touch paper.

Unbidden, he turned the section of the programme debating job creation into a fight about the parties not working together.

For which the bleary eyed viewers will probably send him thanks.

Brickbats

With the DUP seeking to capture the unionist centre-ground, Tom Elliot's assertion that he wouldn't serve under Sinn Fein as deputy first minister sounded like another signal that the UUP is shifting into TUV territory (in fact the mathematical possibility of this outcome appears so remote as to be nigh on impossible).

David Ford took a lot of brickbats from both the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, which may betray anxiety that Alliance could eat into their moderate territory.

Mr Ford handled his party's support for water charges more smoothly than during UTV's debate with his assertion that the others would soon be making so many U-turns it would be dangerous to cross the road.

Unlike the UTV programme, the BBC debate enabled voters to ask the politicians questions.

DUP insiders had apparently been especially nervous about this section, but they needn't have been.

There were no Gordon Brown/Gillian Duffy type moments. Indeed, given the lateness of the hour, the audience questions only served to delay the livelier exchanges which were broadcast near midnight.

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