Naomi Long and Gavin Robinson East Belfast face off in East Belfast election debate
Alliance and DUP Westminister candidates go head to head at Strand Arts Centre
Naomi Long and Gavin Robinson went head-to-head tonight in a public debate as the race to become the next East Belfast MP intensified.
Ms Long told the audience gathered at the Strand Arts Centre earlier that despite media speculation she does not hate Mr Robinson, slating it as "playground stuff", to which her DUP rival nodded in agreement and said "absolutely right".
But when it came to how both representatives spoke about the constituency, a row developed between the pair when Mr Robinson accused Ms Long of being negative.
The DUP candidate cited Ms Long's recent comments that the area could lose out on manufacturing jobs if the UK was to leave the EU, her stand against paramilitaries in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph earlier this year and her concerns about Tesco leaving Connswater Shopping Centre.
Ms Long hit back saying she would not airbrush over issues and that she was being realistic.
"You need to talk positively," Mr Robinson urged Ms Long, to which she responded: "we need to talk realistically".
Mr Robinson also sparked surprise in the debate hosted by political website Slugger O'Toole when he distanced himself from comments by his party leader Peter Robinson, saying that "Naomi can dry her eyes and go".
Mr Robinson refused to endorse that comment. He said "listen to me ... You will not hear comments like that from me".
Both politicians started with opening speeches voicing their love for the constituency.
DUP man Gavin Robinson won the coin toss to go first and immediately spoke of his love for East Belfast, describing it as "iconic".
He spoke of his pride at representing a section of the constituency on Belfast City Council.
Ms Long of the Alliance Party also spoke of her love of the area, and described the Strand Arts Centre, where she had watched films as a child, as a metaphor for east Belfast - in transition and changing for the better.
She said it is her mission to move east Belfast forward.
Both candidates agreed they were not in favour of quotas to get more women into politics. Ms Long said she favours affirmative action which she explained as approaching women to find out why so few put their name forward for elections.
Mr Robinson said although his party is not running any female candidates in the Westminster elections, he pointed to his party's MEP Diane Dodds and Stormont minister Arlene Foster as positive examples of female representatives in the DUP.
"It is important that people who have a passion and want to get involved in politics do so regardless of their gender," he said.
In response to a question from unionist commentator Alex Kane about why so little policy has been discussed in this election so far, Ms Long said the unionist pact has "deflected" from policy and put the attention on what side people will vote for.
The pair disagreed on whether the issue of the cutting of the number of days the Union flag is flown from Belfast City Hall was still a big issue in the East Belfast constituency.
Mr Robinson told the audience that he still believes the change in policy from the flag being flown on statutory days instead of all year round was a retrograde step.
He said he has found that this issue has not been forgotten and is often brought up on the doorstep when he is canvassing.
But Ms Long said she was finding that the flag is being brought up much less often this election than it had been last year at the European and Council elections.
The debate was organised by political website Slugger O'Toole along with polling company Lucid Talk and Chambre Public Affairs.
It was the second major debate held among candidates for the East Belfast seat.
On Monday night, candidates from all of the parties took part in hustings organised by Evangelical Alliance at Willowfield Church.
The are six candidates running for election in East Belfast are:
- Ross Brown (Green Party)
- Naomi Long (Alliance)
- Mary Muldoon (SDLP)
- Niall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Féin)
- Gavin Robinson (DUP)
- Neil Wilson (Conservatives)