Sinn Fein's McDonald laughs off DUP claim her strings pulled by IRA in Belfast
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald last night rejected a DUP claim that she is controlled by the IRA's Northern Command.
During lively exchanges at the West Belfast Festival leaders' debate, unionist politicians challenged Ms McDonald over her U-turn on the timing of a border poll and the sincerity of Sinn Fein's efforts to reach out to their community.
And members of the audience confronted DUP MLA Simon Hamilton over his party's record on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and its opposition to same-sex marriage and an Irish Language Act.
The former Stormont minister acknowledged that some DUP comments about the Irish language in the past weren't always respectful.
Ms McDonald last week said she would prefer not to have a border poll in the context of a crash or very hard Brexit. Less than 24 hours later, she said she wanted a referendum as soon as possible.
Mr Hamilton said he had agreed with her initial position "before Northern Command got the hold of you" and changed it. There were shouts of "wise up" from the audience.
Ms McDonald rejected the suggestion that she was "controlled by persons unnamed... apparently in west Belfast" and joked that she wanted to meet the people Mr Hamilton was alluding to: "Where are you, hardmen?"
She said that she faced claims of being an "ultra", as well as criticism of her use of the word 'Londonderry' and commented: "I can't be all of these things."
UUP leader Robin Swann, Fine Gael Health Minister Simon Harris, Fianna Fail TD and Brexit spokeswoman Lisa Chambers, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry took part in the debate in St Mary's College.
Mr Hamilton joked that he was delighted to be there representing the DUP, "the second biggest party in west Belfast".
To combined laughter and boos from the floor, he said that Arlene Foster sent her best to everyone and was sorry she couldn't make it as she was guaranteed such a good reception.
On a border poll, Ms McDonald said "constitutional change is in the air" and "the clock is counting down to the referendum on unity". She welcomed comments from former DUP leader Peter Robinson on the need for unionists to prepare for a border poll, adding "political unionism can no longer bury its head in the sand".
The Sinn Fein president rejected claims from Mr Swann and Mr Hamilton that there was no need for a border poll and it would lead to more instability and divisions. She challenged the "fairytale" that "the North was a perfect place and then comes along talk of a border poll that creates entrenchment".
Ms McDonald said Sinn Fein would oppose any attempt to change the rules on a referendum to mean 50% plus one wasn't enough for Irish unity. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Partition is maintained on 50% plus one," she said.
Mr Hamilton said unionists had believed Ms McDonald would represent a new era in Sinn Fein, and while he acknowledged there had been glimpses of that, she still had "some work to do".
He stated that Sinn Fein didn't show respect for the British identity in Northern Ireland particularly in the "west of the province (on) Union flags and Orange parades".
Mr Swann challenged Ms McDonald over using the slogan 'Tiocfaidh ar la' in her first speech after becoming Sinn Fein leader. "As a unionist, that is not a welcome in any shape or form," he said.
The Sinn Fein president said as a republican those words were "our vernacular" and didn't "carry menace". She challenged the DUP on its opposition to an Irish Language Act and same-sex marriage. To loud applause, she said "50,000 walked in Pride - that's the big parading season now". The DUP must recognise "this is 2018, not the 1600s".
Mr Hamilton accused Sinn Fein of blocking the return of power-sharing. He said he believed it would be restored but didn't know when.
To demands for "equality" from the floor, he said his party wouldn't return to Stormont on the basis of a "rollover to Sinn Fein". Any deal had to be "fair and balanced".
"Was RHI fair and balanced?" an audience member shouted. "You had an agreement and you ran away," somebody else said.
Mr Eastwood said nationalists were "once again a restless people", but said Sinn Fein was too contaminated by the past to lead a border poll campaign.
Ms Chambers called on local politicians to push "the pause button" on their arguments and get Stormont up and running to deal with the Brexit crisis. She declined to say when her party would stand in elections here.
Mr Harris expressed support for same-sex marriage and said love wasn't a unionist-nationalist issue.
Mr Farry said unionists needed to wake up to the reality that young people were increasingly looking to Irish unity as a route to addressing equality issues.