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Peter Robinson rules out dissident talks as the party heavyweights point-score through TV debate

By Noel McAdam

First Minister Peter Robinson has ruled out talking to republican splinter groups despite the growing dissident threat.

“I don’t believe it is right,” the DUP leader told the first UTV televised debate involving all five of the main Stormont Executive party chiefs last night.

Instead, he said, those involved in the violence, including the recent murder of Catholic constable Ronan Kerr, need to be isolated and information given so that the PSNI can deal with them.

Mr Robinson said the community had come together like never before over the Kerr killing and he had been told on the doorsteps “over and over again” that it is not a time for party politics.

Rather than arguing and bickering, he went on, people wanted to see the politicians working together to get agreed solutions to the “enormous challenges” facing Northern Ireland over the next four years and beyond.

But tensions between the Executive parties were sharply evident in the hour-long broadcast from the Studio theatre of the Waterfront Hall in Belfast before an audience of around 200.

Mr Robinson accused Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott of an “absolute, unmitigated lie” over his claim that the DUP leader had rated the performance of Education Minister Caitriona Ruane as “great”.

“Show me the quote,” he demanded.

Then, as Mr Elliott continued to insist his party’s Health Minister Michael McGimpsey had been denigrated while Ms Ruane had been praised by the DUP, Mr Robinson quipped: “Simply talking over me doesn’t change the facts.”

The two main unionist rivals also bitterly clashed when the DUP leader referred to the Ulster Unionists’ electoral pact with the Conservatives, which in Government have imposed the current £4bn cut in the local budget.

Mr Elliott said he would remind Mr Robinson that it was the DUP which had kept the Labour Government in place, causing the current recession in the first place.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness also contrasted his working partnership with Mr Robinson and “our friend”— the Alliance Party leader David Ford — with the UUP and SDLP, which voted against the Budget.

“Is Martin McGuinness saying we should vote for something that is wrong?” Mr Elliott said.

“We won’t do that.”

Mr McGuinness said when SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie was Social Development Minister, she had voted for the Budget in the Executive meeting, and then gone into the Assembly where her party voted against.

“We can’t have that,” he said.

Ms Ritchie, however, attacked the “cosy consensus” of the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance and said there was a need for imagination to tackle social issues including those around the sick and elderly.

Mr Elliott in turn rounded on Mr McGuinness, repeatedly saying there are people within mainstream republicanism who have information about some of those involved in the dissident groups.

Mr McGuinness said the UUP boss was guilty of “cheap political point-scoring” and that if anyone had information on the murder of Mr Kerr or other incidents they should give it to the police.

The senior Sinn Fein figure was the only participant who is not also a party leader, but has taken an increasingly dominant role, not least since Gerry Adams resigned as West Belfast MP to become a TD in Louth.

The mainly good-humoured exchanges also included the prospects for a shared education system in the future in Northern Ireland, the spending cuts being implemented in the four-year Budget and cutting the number of Assembly members, Government departments and local councils.

How they rated in the debate

PETER ROBINSON

The DUP leader was confident and relaxed for the most part and landed his blows deftly. His performance was only marred by an unseemly quip to Margaret Ritchie — about her expectations to be back in top office — and he allowed a loud and angry spat with Tom Elliott to go on too long.

MARTIN MCGUINNESS

Taking the place of Gerry Adams, Mr McGuinness oozed charm and affability. He mounted a stout defence on education and the polished performance only slipped when he seemed for a moment to forget the name of the Alliance leader David Ford.

TOM ELLIOT

Not generally known for outstanding public speaking skills, the Ulster Unionist leader showed a more aggressive and challenging side than has previously been seen in television debates, and yet he made the crucial mistake of reminding the audience he is a farmer who might not be re-elected.

MARGARET RITCHIE

The SDLP leader can at times come across like the teacher of a class of indifferent teenagers, but last night she seemed less clipped and more conversational. She was also not afraid to cut through the television conventions to tell the audience to “vote SDLP”, and take no nonsense from Mr Robinson.

DAVID FORD

This was something of a debut for the Alliance leader who had to work hard to make his mark against the ‘big four’. This he failed to do well enough, for example when Peter Robinson lambasted Alliance’s willingness to contemplate water charges with such populism as “the people can’t afford to pay any more”.

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