DUP rejects barbs over Foster's absence from election debates
Arlene Foster has stepped aside in two separate TV leaders' debates on BBC and UTV next week.
The former First Minister is the only Stormont leader from the five main parties who will not participate in the programmes on Monday and Tuesday.
Her place will be filled instead by her deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who is also the party's leader at Westminster.
The move has been seen by some as an attempt to prevent the DUP leader from making another "crocodile" or "blonde" gaffe in the closing days of a lacklustre election campaign.
Ulster Unionist Upper Bann candidate, Doug Beattie, said: "Arlene has made one or two gaffes of late. She has made comments which were seen to motivate the republican electorate and I am sure the DUP does not want a repeat of that.
"But I think it is much more to do with the fact that Nigel is facing a particularly difficult contest in North Belfast and needs to get all the coverage he possibly can. That is the primary reason."
Sinn Fein accused Mrs Foster of being like Prime Minister Theresa May and "running scared".
A party statement said Mrs Foster was taking her lead from Mrs May "and ducking" the leadership debates.
"The DUP leader is running scared of the electorate on the issues of Brexit, the RHI scandal, Tory cuts and the DUP's opposition to equality and respect," it claimed.
In response, the DUP said: "Nigel Dodds, as DUP Westminster leader, will represent the party in the local debates just as he did in 2015. "Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, is not participating in the debates. In 2015, four of the five parties were not represented by their leader. In the recent national debate, the SNP was represented by its Westminster leader."
The party also said on Tuesday that Mrs Foster is travelling to participate in commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Messines and has further media engagements ahead of that.
"Arlene has already participated in two party leader interviews for the BBC on Inside Politics and The View," a spokesman added.
Mrs Foster came in for widespread criticism when she likened republicans to "crocodiles" over their demands for an Irish Language Act, and also attracted headlines when she referred to Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill as "blonde".
Meanwhile, the DUP urged the BBC to review future election debate arrangements after it was excluded from a national broadcast again.
But the party also revealed it dropped plans to take legal action against the Beeb partly because of the costs.
The DUP has more House of Commons seats than other parties which were represented in the debate on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the party, which also considered legal action during the last General Election contest two years ago, said the party had decided not to proceed. "The costs would have been fairly prohibitive, with no guarantee of success anyway as the BBC could amend their own rules if they had wanted to.
"The composition of the panel for the BBC debate was unfair and unrepresentative of the United Kingdom," the spokesperson claimed. "The DUP had the same number of MPs returned at the last election as the Liberal Democrats and we have more seats than a number of the other parties represented in the debate.
"The format of this debate is indicative of the BBC's dismissive attitude towards Northern Ireland and they have a responsibility to review it for future elections."
The BBC said "there is a distinct separation between the party political structure of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK" and to include the DUP "would be unfair to other larger Northern Ireland parties".