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BBC TV debate: Leaders clash on paramilitary influence

 

By Allan Preston

The DUP last night distanced itself from an election endorsement it received from an umbrella group for three loyalist paramilitary organisations.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson tried to put clear water between the DUP and the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) as the five largest parties clashed over the influence of paramilitaries during BBC Northern Ireland’s Leaders’ Debate last night.

The DUP and Sinn Fein were represented by Mr Donaldson and John O’Dowd, with the SDLP, UUP and Alliance represented by their leaders — Colum Eastwood, Robin Swann and Naomi Long.

Tensions flared when Mr Donaldson was asked if the DUP would distance itself from the support it has received from the LCC, a group linked to the terrorist UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando.

He rejected it, saying: “We’ve made it very clear we do not accept support from anyone who is engaged in paramilitary or criminal activity — there is no equivocation on our part.”

Mrs Long asked why it took the DUP 15 minutes to make the same point on BBC’s Talkback programme that afternoon, saying: “Even Donald Trump said he didn’t want the Ku Klux Klan to support him and it didn’t take as long.”

Mr Donaldson added: “We want to work with those who want the paramilitaries to leave the stage, we’ll continue to do it with the LCC because we’ve got to get the paramilitaries off the backs of loyalist communities.”

Mr O’Dowd said he agreed with engaging with loyalist paramilitaries to leave the stage, “but the DUP and UDA relationship is not about them leaving the stage — it’s about them dominating the stage”.

Mr Donaldson called this “utter nonsense”, before holding up a picture of Sinn Fein candidate Mairtin O Muilleoir with UDA chief Jackie McDonald.

Referring to today’s front page story in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Donaldson then questioned why IRA Shankill bomber Sean Kelly had been canvassing for Sinn Fein.

Mr O’Dowd responded: “Sean Kelly is out canvassing to promote politics and the peace process.”

The politicians were also grilled over the constitutional question, with Mr Donaldson saying it concerned many of the voters he met on the doorsteps.

Mrs Long said re-establishing the Stormont institutions was the important issue, not the border question, which she said was pushed by “lazy politicians” — and voters were more worried about getting an appointment with their GP.

Mr Eastwood said the election was only a referendum on who should be in government and that Sinn Fein MPs who do not take their seats were giving the Conservatives a proxy vote.

Mr O’Dowd quickly accused SDLP MPs of not showing up to debates: “Their attendance rate is nearly as bad as our own.”

Host Noel Thompson interjected, revealing that the SDLP attendance rates varied from 80% for Margaret Ritchie down to 38% for Alasdair McDonnell.

During the debate, Mr Swann said the main concern for voters was the lack of a Stormont Executive.

“The important thing is to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and working again because that’s where we get the problems solved and that’s where we need the answers,” he said. There was further disagreement when the panel was quizzed on preventing terrorism.

When asked about the republican movement’s association with terrorism, Mr O’Dowd called it a loaded question, saying: “When you go round the rest of the members, particularly Jeffrey, will you remind him of his UDR past?”

The two soon butted heads, with Mr Donaldson insisting he was proud of his UDR past. “What about you?” he asked. “I can stand here and say I was proud to serve my country in the Ulster Defence Regiment.”

Mr O’Dowd answered: “No, I was harassed and threatened and my neighbours were murdered by the Ulster Defence Regiment, but I never served with them.”

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