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Sinn Fein's O'Neill drops out of final TV showdown after losing her voice

By Victoria Leonard

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill pulled out of last night’s BBC NI Leaders’ Debate due to illness, 24 hours after Alliance leader Naomi Long took unwell during the UTV election debate.

The republican leader was replaced by Upper Bann candidate John O’Dowd .

It is understood that Mrs O’Neill had lost her voice.

It marked the second time in two days that the leader of a major party had taken ill as the general election looms.

On Monday night, the UTV election debate was temporarily halted after Mrs Long felt faint.

However, after a 10-minute break and a glass of water she was able to return to her rostrum and take an active part in proceedings.

Yesterday, an Alliance spokesman insisted that Mrs Long has “no health issues” despite the fainting spell.

He said that the party leader had simply been affected by a lack of sleep following the death of Alliance stalwart Mervyn Jones, as well as suffering from the heat of the studio lights.

Mrs Long was reportedly “back on the campaign trail” ahead of the second debate yesterday, and subsequently spoke at the funeral of the Alliance stalwart, who represented the Pottinger ward from 1985 until 2001 and then the Victoria ward, now known as Ormiston, from 2005 until his death.

Mr Jones’ body was discovered by an Alliance member when they went to the former party treasurer’s home, after the 66-year-old failed to attend a council meeting.

Mrs Long told the Belfast Telegraph: “Mervyn and I were friends for over 20 years and I have been naturally very upset since he died.”

Also absent from last night’s debate was DUP leader Arlene Foster, who was in France to mark the centenary of the Battle of Messines.

Mrs Foster was represented by Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP candidate for Lagan Valley.

Her absence and Miss O’Neill’s illness meant that neither of the leaders of the two largest parties attended both televised debates.

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