Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland candidates clash over Brexit and Stormont collapse

In a TV debate, the leaders were challenged on their positions on the most pressing issues facing the province.

(left to right) SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, DUP South Belfast candidate Emma Little-Pengelly, Alliance leader Naomi Long and presenter Marc Mallett during the recording of UTV election debate (Niall Carson/PA)
(left to right) SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, DUP South Belfast candidate Emma Little-Pengelly, Alliance leader Naomi Long and presenter Marc Mallett during the recording of UTV election debate (Niall Carson/PA)

By Cate McCurry, PA

Politicians from the five main parties in Northern Ireland have clashed over Brexit and the collapse of Stormont in a debate days ahead of the General Election.

In a head-to-head, the leaders were challenged on their positions on the most pressing issues facing the province.

Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill, the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, UUP leader Steve Aiken, Alliance leader Naomi Long and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood all took part in the UTV election debate.

During the lively hour-long exchange, the politicians were quizzed by UTV’s Marc Mallet on Brexit, the Northern Ireland institutions and the health crisis.

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Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill (left) and DUP South Belfast candidate Emma Little-Pengelly (Niall Carson/PA)

Addressing Brexit, Ms Little-Pengelly, who is standing in south Belfast, said that if there is a hung parliament, the DUP will “ensure” there is no hard border down the Irish Sea.

She claimed that her party stopped the Prime Minister’s “bad” Brexit deal.

Mr Aiken, who is standing in East Antrim, accused the DUP of failing to protect the union.

He said the current deal on the table “undermines” Northern Ireland’s businesses and said it happened on the DUP’s watch.

He also said the DUP was not over the “jot or tittle” of the detail in preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Ms O’Neill, who is standing in Mid Ulster, defended her party’s policy on abstentionism, saying that Irish interests will never be served in Westminster.

Ms Long, who is standing in East Belfast, said that a second referendum on Brexit is the most democratic way out of the “morass”.

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood (left) and Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken during a break in the recording (Niall Carson/PA)

She said that while the public was promised unicorns, they are getting a “lame donkey” Brexit from Mr Johnson.

Mr Eastwood, who is battling for the Foyle seat, said that the SDLP wants to stop Brexit and is backing a people’s vote.

“Whether we like it or not, the decisions are being taken in Westminster, they are voting after Christmas on Brexit,” he added.

Ms Long also accused the DUP of “cosying” up to Mr Johnson while Ms O’Neill said that the DUP got “carried away” with their influence at Westminster but are now “sobering up”.

Mr Aiken said the only way to stop Mr Johnson’s deal is remaining in the EU.

Addressing the Stormont talks, which are due to begin days after the General Election, Mr Eastwood said that the controversial petition of concern needs to be reformed or suspended for the lifetime of the parliament.

Ms Long also called for a reform of the petition of concern.

She added: “We need to get back in and do the job and if we won’t then there are two options. We either have a fresh Assembly election and elect different people to take over the roles of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or we put it on ice.”

Ms O’Neill denied her party walked away from the institutions, adding that a deal is possible.

Ms Little-Pengelly said that the public wants parties to compromise to ensure Stormont is restored.

The Westminster candidates were then asked to address the escalating waiting lists in Northern Ireland’s health service which are the worst in the UK.

Health workers in Northern Ireland have taken industrial action over pay and staffing levels in the service in recent days.

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Alliance leader Naomi Long (Niall Carson/PA)

Ms Little-Pengelly defended the decision of Jim Wells to end pay parity between Northern Ireland healthcare workers and the rest of the UK.

She said: “Jim Wells was a minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, it was the Northern Ireland Executive that agreed that budget and approach.

“That decision was taken because of the very difficult budget that we had from Westminster.”

Ms O’Neill, a former health minister, said Ms Little-Pengelly was wrong in suggesting it was an Executive-led decision, adding that Mr Wells took an individual decision.

Mr Eastwood said that politics should be taken out of health.

He added: “We need an Executive in place, we need a government in Stormont and then we all need to agree to take the politics out of health and get on with taking tough decisions.”

Mr Aiken called for a national emergency to be declared within the health services.

“It is an emergency. Anybody who’s been on the picket lines, anybody who’s been in A&E recently realises that is an emergency.”

PA

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