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Northern Ireland parties trade blows in TV debate

O’Neill fails to criticise IRA violence

By Noel McAdam

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill came under fire again last night for failing to criticise IRA violence - after condemning the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester.

But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds also faced tough questions after the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) endorsed one of his party's candidates, Emma Little Pengelly in South Belfast.

The exchanges came during the first of two televised party debates within 24 hours shown on UTV, and to be followed by a live BBC debate tonight.

Mr Dodds stood in for his party leader Arlene Foster, but Mrs O'Neill was joined by the other three main leaders - Colum Eastwood of the SDLP, Robin Swann for the Ulster Unionists and Alliance leader Naomi Long.

The five senior representatives traded blows on Brexit, a border poll, and the prospects for the Stormont Executive being re-established following inter-party talks stated to take place after the general election.

After opening statements, the programme opened with a discussion of the London atrocity but the focus quickly switched back to Northern Ireland.

Mr Swann welcomed Sinn Fein's condemnation of the two terror attacks in England but said: "I wish they would do the same for previous bombings."

And he later added: "All terrorism is wrong, whether now or 20 years ago."

Mrs O'Neill said it was unfortunate that parties should use the Manchester and London incidents to score political points off others. "They are different conflicts. We don't need to draw comparisons between them," she said.

The two recent attacks had been "wholly wrong" she said, and there was a need to examine extremism from an international perspective.

Mrs Long said: "It didn't take long for the focus to move to the normal mudslinging in Northern Ireland. I think most people will find that pretty tasteless."

Mrs O'Neill also said Mr Dodds had questions to answer in relation to the endorsement of his party by the UPRG, which provides political advice to the UDA. Mr Dodds replied: "For the leader of the republican movement in Northern Ireland, who has eulogised IRA murders, to lecture other people is an absolute disgrace."

The DUP Westminster leader said his party had been consistent and unequivocal about its attitude to violence throughout its entire existence. Mrs Long interjected: "Yet not rejecting the endorsement of paramilitaries."

Sinn Fein also came under attack for its abstentionist policy which Mrs O'Neill insisted would not change.

SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said: "Sinn Fein want you to vote for them, but they won't go to vote for you."

Mr Swann said Sinn Fein could not be effective in Parliament because they do not take their seats.

And Mr Dodds said a vote for Sinn Fein "helps the Tory party" because they are not present.

Mrs O'Neill said the presence of the province's MPs had failed to halt Brexit and the triggering of Article 51 which began the process of exiting the European Union.

In turn, Mrs Long said if people voted for the DUP "they get the Tories" because Mr Dodds' party always supported the Conservatives. "Not on welfare," Mr Dodds said.

And Mrs Long came back "about 70% of the time" to which Mr Dodds replied: "So it's not all the time."

In relation to the return of devolved government, Mr Swann said he was "desperately scared" that Northern Ireland is "looking into an abyss".

Mrs O'Neill said the DUP had made the task of reaching an agreement more difficult by putting a number of new tests into its manifesto. The document released last week insisted any deal with Sinn Fein would be judged against 'five core tests'.

These include full consistency with Northern Ireland remaining a "full and integral part" of the UK and it would also have to be "fully compatible with British citizenship and resulting in better government than a return to direct rule".

Mr Dodds insisted his party had set out no new "red lines".

Mrs O'Neill said Sinn Fein was being reasonable asking for previous agreements including an Irish Language Act to be implemented.

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