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2 February 2015

Broadcasters send the wrong signal by excluding Northern Ireland

First Minister Peter Robinson
First Minister Peter Robinson

Brains and spines were disconnected when the decisions were taken about who should participate in the election debates. Weak broadcasters caved in to bullying politicians, made decisions without thinking through the implications and ended up with a shambles.

I have every sympathy with Peter Robinson's protest: it is outrageous, for instance, that the Green Party, which has just one MP, should be included, while the DUP, with eight, is excluded.

Yet the BBC and ITV are also right to say that it would not be fair to have the DUP and not Sinn Fein, the SDLP or the Alliance Party (we should ignore Sinn Fein's abstentionism: if it suits it, it will do the U-turn).

Already appalled by having seven participants and unable to contemplate having 12, broadcasters produced the justification that the rest of the United Kingdom can't vote for any of the Northern Ireland parties. With a population of only 1.8 million (2.9%), the implication is the province can be ignored.

In 2013 the UK had a population of about 64.1 million, of which England has 53.9 million, Scotland 5.3 and Wales 3.1.

But if 2.9% of the UK population can be ignored, why is the debate featuring the exclusively Welsh Plaid Cymru (4.8% and three MPs), or the exclusively Scots Scottish National Party (8.3% and six MPs)?

The simplest approach would have been for broadcasters to give a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the leaders of the biggest parties - David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Yes, Ukip topped the poll in the European elections, but this is an election for seats at Westminster.

But they yielded to pressure and invited Ukip, which is why Cameron insisted on including the Greens, who are potentially damaging to Miliband. At which stage the SNP swung its claymore and was admitted without any resistance, with the Welsh scurrying along in its wake.

The five Northern Ireland parties should have an outbreak of unity and - to save on legal fees - launch a joint action against the broadcasters (this might also be a good moment for Labour Party supporters to threaten a case against Ed Miliband for discrimination: it is monstrous that he continues to keep the ban on running candidates in Northern Ireland).

The May general election is almost impossible to call, but what all commentators are agreed on is that a hung parliament is very likely.

The electorate, therefore, needs a chance to look at people who might be king-makers and watch them challenge each other in debate.

Voters need to be clear that Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the SDLP and Sinn Fein wish to weaken, or destroy, the Union, while the DUP is intent on strengthening it.

Those concerned about defence should know that the SNP wants Trident scrapped, while the Greens demand that the UK should have no nuclear deterrent of any kind.

The DUP, however, insists that any Government its support should honour Britain's Nato commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Labour voters defecting to Ukip need to know Nigel Farage won't help Miliband to take power, because of his opposition to an EU referendum. Lib Dems have to be clear that, whatever they think of Nick Clegg, he demonstrated considerable political skill in holding together a coalition most pundits thought wouldn't last the course.

Responsible voters no longer have the luxury of paying attention only to the main parties. They need to know if party leaders they've never thought about before are likely to care about the national good, or their own selfish interests; about their country, or about their parties?

We need debates in which leaders of smaller parties answer tough questions about how they would behave if they found themselves in a position to decide on who runs the United Kingdom, and Cameron and Miliband have to be clear about what is and is not negotiable.

A debate with a dozen participants seems unmanageable, so the broadcasters need to go back to the drawing board.

Three debates of four, with lots being drawn for who is paired with whom, is a perfectly possible approach. I would pay good money to watch Nigel Farage slugging it out with Martin McGuinness.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards