Collapse of pre-election debate sparks bitter row between candidates

May 4, 2015

With just days left until the Westminster elections, the issue of a proposed pre-election debate between all five Newry and Armagh Westminster candidates reached boiling point last week with accusations and counter accusations levied between Sinn Fein and the SDLP as to who was responsible for the eventual collapse of the debate.

Organisers Destination Newry, who were set to broadcast the debate live from Newry Arts Centre last Thursday night, posted a letter on their website two days before the event explaining why the debate had been cancelled.

The letter outlined that despite receiving a positive response from candidates when the idea for a live debate was first mooted on 25th March, a suitable date and time for all candidates proved difficult to confirm.  According to the local live streaming TV station a date was finally settled for the debate to take place on Thursday last (30th April), only for the SDLP to advise that their candidate, Justin McNulty, would not be available on the evening. Destination Newry said it therefore “judged that the debate would not be viable without all five candidates.”

After Sinn Fein accused Mr McNulty of  “running from the electorate,” Mr McNulty hit back issuing  a fresh challenge to Sinn Fein’s Mickey Brady to debate him tomorrow evening (Tuesday 5th May).

The SDLP Westminster candidate maintained that his party had only been advised of last Thursday’s proposed date three days previously and were asked to confirm availability on Tuesday.

“We explained that this date did not suit as I have other commitments. I am hosting a major cross border event on Thursday aimed at bring jobs and investment to Newry and Armagh,” argued Mr McNulty, who added that he offered the alternative date of Tuesday 5th May “but others refused.”

“I am deeply disappointed that Destination Newry called off the debate and even more disappointed that they failed to release the full facts as to why they cancelled the debate.  In case there is any doubt, I am up for the debate and always have been.

“I am running from no one, I’ve never ran from anything in my life.  I’m running FOR the people of Newry and Armagh.

“The debate organisers may have consulted with other candidates about a selection of dates, but they didn’t consult me or my team.  I think it is completely disingenuous of them to suggest otherwise.”

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said the SDLP were “trying to spin their way out of running from a public debate” and were “attempting to play games with the electorate of Newry and Armagh.”

Mr Murphy, the Sinn Fein election agent, went on to accuse the SDLP and Mr McNulty of “deliberately scuppering the only public debate organised for Newry and Armagh” and claimed that the “facts” of the situation were that the SDLP candidate said he could not attend the initial date of Tuesday 28th April due to “other commitments.” Mr Murphy said Sinn Fein had changed its schedule to accommodate the new date and time of Thursday April 30th at 8pm and he questioned why Mr McNulty then pulled out of Thursday’s debate due to a “major cross border event” he was hosting in Newry’s Canal Court Hotel when the event only ran from 10am to 1pm.

“Equally as spurious as his excuses for scuppering the debate was his challenge to a debate on Tuesday,” added Mr Murphy.

“Let us be clear on this. There has never been any suggestion of any debate on Tuesday.  Nobody is organising a debate on Tuesday. This was nothing more than a smoke and mirrors attempt by his team to spin their way out of an embarrassing situation.

“At all stages of this episode, beginning over a month ago, all other candidates have been willing to face the people and put their vision forward. The SDLP have not.  When they were found out, they then tried to blame the local media organisation who, in a display of local democracy in action, attempted to set up the debate.

“These are the people claiming they will go to Westminster and speak for the electorate yet they can’t even speak to the electorate.”