Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Northern Ireland election debate: Key questions answered

The theme tune for last night’s programme was When Two Tribes Go To War from Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

And indeed Margaret, Gerry, Peter and Reg had come from a place near Holywood, called Stormont.

But it just wasn’t like that. The ‘two tribes’ in Northern Ireland have battled, whether it can be called a war or not.

But this was more debating society than battlefield. Frankie’s other big hit, Relax, would in the end have been much more appropriate.

The leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main parties said politics and politicians have been damaged by the barrage of expenses scandals last year.

QUESTION: 22-year-old Masters student Karly Greene asked how young people could be inspired to vote given the recent expenses scandals.

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie said there was no doubt politics and politicians had been damaged by last year but there was a duty on politicians to restore confidence and ensure young people “come in.”

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey said there was no doubt people were absolutely disgusted by what had happened but it should encourage young people to become involved and help “clean politics up”.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said he had been cleared in relation to any issues involving expenses but would not sit “polishing my halo”.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said his party’s MPs did not “draw down” personal expenses from Westminster and only accepted “an industrial wage”.

QUESTION: Queen’s University politics student Christopher Andrews asked the leaders to assess the impact of public spending cuts on the province where half the jobs belong to the public sector.

Mr Adams said: “We don’t have enough economic levers of our own. We want to seek an Executive task force and we want to see the harmonisation of Corporation Tax to 12.5% across the island.”

Mr Robinson said Northern Ireland was facing a very dangerous period because of the extent of national debt and the only way out was to cut public expenditure, raise taxes, sell off assets or achieve economic growth.

Sir Reg said his allies, the Conservatives, would not allow the planned increase in national insurance and the Corporation Tax rate could be, say, 10% with more power for the Assembly.”

QUESTION: Gerry Maguire, from Belfast, asked, given its policy of staying away from Westminster, whether a vote for Sinn Fein is “a wasted one”.

“Not at all,” said Mr Adams. “All parties at election times exaggerate their influence and the importance of Westminster. England is a nice place but it’s not my country; this is my country.”

But Ms Ritchie retorted: “The SDLP will always take our seats because we believe you have to be there (in the House of Commons) when it counts. Gerry is saying a little untruth. Westminster does matter.”

Sir Reg said: “You cannot be in London and Stormont at the same time. You have one job and you should do that job.”

Mr Robinson, whose MPs apart from himself are to stand down from the Assembly if they are elected to the Commons, said in the past he had been speaking in the Assembly as First Minister and then in the Commons within an hour-and-a half.

Each of the leaders were also given a minute to set out their stalls.

Mr Robinson said it was a “defining election” which would decide whether the province moves out of its dark period of conflict or is dragged back.

Mr Adams said it was about leadership, equality, and preparing for the economic and social challenges ahead, such as the lack of qualifications affecting Protestant boys in working-class areas. Ms Ritchie said the SDLP was the only party running in all 18 constituencies in the province and refused to become engaged in “tribal pacts.”

Sir Reg said he was offering “something different” in that his MPs with their link-up to the Conservatives could form part of the next Government and affect real issues, rather than just lobbying.

Persistent claims over Mr Adams’ involvement in the IRA were raised by presenter Jim Dougal. The West Belfast MP said he did not distance himself from the IRA or cast aspersions on individuals because people people could presume what they wanted to presume. Mr Dougal then asked whether Mr Adams had even ever been asked to join the IRA. “I never was, just now you mention that,” the West Belfast MP replied.

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