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Northern Ireland leaders land and parry blows in big TV debate as election day looms

By Suzanne Breen

Published 04/05/2016

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance Party leader David Ford took part in the debate on BBC last night
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, DUP leader Arlene Foster, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance Party leader David Ford took part in the debate on BBC last night

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has accused the DUP of wrongly whipping up of fears of a Sinn Fein First Minister and of burying Peter Robinson from its election campaign.

However, DUP leader Arlene Foster launched a stinging attack on the Ulster Unionists' political legacy, and said the party would be remembered for the days of "pushover unionism".

The fiery exchanges took place during BBC Northern Ireland's Election 2016: The Leaders' Debate. SDLP chief Colum Eastwood and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness also clashed during the hour-long discussion, with Alliance boss David Ford complaining that he played only a marginal role in proceedings.

More: BBC NI Leaders' Debate post-programme poll: Mike Nesbitt 'wins'

Mr Nesbitt went on the attack early, accusing the DUP of "Project Scaremongering" and "dog whistle politics" by exaggerating unionist fears that Sinn Fein would emerge the largest party and Mr McGuinness become First Minister.

Referring to Mrs Foster's five-point plan, he said Mr Robinson had a similar plan last year, but it was now forgotten.

"I think Arlene has a five-word plan - 'do not mention Peter Robinson'," he said.

"I have a one-point plan - the Ulster Unionist one-point plan is 'Make it work. Make Stormont work'." Mrs Foster came back fighting.

"Unlike Mike Nesbitt, I remember the bad old days of pushover unionism. I remember what it was like in 1998 when we had a concession a day to the IRA. I remember what happened in relation to prisoners. I remember what happened to the RUC."

During the debate, which was chaired by Noel Thompson, the leaders were questioned by a studio audience made up of party supporters and some undecided voters. It was simulcast to UK-wide audience on the BBC News channel.

Mrs Foster stressed the symbolism of the title of First Minister.

More: DUP leader Arlene Foster: Why I blocked plans to speed up Troubles probes

Mr Ford strongly disagreed and accused the DUP of trying to frighten voters. He said the positions of First and Deputy First Minister were fundamentally the same, with the only difference being "who gets to shake the Queen's hand first when she comes here". During the debate Mr Ford complained that viewers of the programme would just see "Mike versus Arlene, Martin versus Colum".

He said the focus should be on "looking forward to the future" and developing the economy "to meet the needs of our children to stop them emigrating".

Mr McGuinness accused the SDLP leader of not knowing "what he wants to do" over entering a new government at Stormont.

"I am going into government. Colum can't say that tonight," he said.

Mr Eastwood replied: "Not like in the South, where they've refused to go into government at every opportunity."

The Sinn Fein politician said he had been told by the Dublin government that the SDLP was never planning to endorse last year's Fresh Start Agreement.

Mr Eastwood retorted that the party was right not to endorse a deal that returned "welfare powers to the British government".

Gerry Adams' controversial use of the 'n-word' was not raised during the debate.

There was common ground between Sinn Fein and the DUP on several issues with both leaders saying they were working together to bring jobs to Northern Ireland.

At one point, during a discussion on victims, Mr McGuinness called for transparency on the past, but Mr Nesbitt said that he had not told the Bloody Sunday Inquiry the full truth about his IRA history.

Belfast Telegraph

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