Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

General Election: Northern Ireland leaders in final TV clash before polling day

BBC Northern Ireland Leaders' Debate. Credit: Presseye/PA Wire
BBC Northern Ireland Leaders' Debate. Credit: Presseye/PA Wire
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Northern Ireland’s political parties clashed one last time over Brexit, health and restoring Stormont before polling day as part of the BBC NI leaders debate.

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Like the UTV debate on Sunday, DUP leader Arlene Foster was absent again — with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson standing in this time.

The four other Stormont leaders present were Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood, the UUP’s Steve Aiken and Alliance’s Naomi Long.

Asked if Brexit made a united Ireland more likely, Mr Eastwood said a second EU referendum was needed to stop the “Brexit madness” before any decision on a united Ireland was taken.

Sir Jeffrey said he did not believe Brexit posed “an existential threat” to the status of Northern Ireland but he disliked the “poor negotiation” by the UK Government.

Mr Aiken said the DUP had voted to put a border down the Irish Sea without looking at “the jot and tittle” of the deal.

Ms O’Neill said she didn’t think “anything was inevitable” when it came to a united Ireland, but the Brexit process had caused British citizens in Northern Ireland who valued their European identity to consider it.

Ms Long said Brexit had “certainly made Northern Ireland less stable” but did not think it made a united Ireland inevitable.

Mr Eastwood criticised Sinn Fein MPs for not taking their seats, which Ms O’Neill called “disingenuous” as former SDLP MPs had failed to stop policies like austerity and welfare reform.

“Your aspirations are to go and lie on the green benches with Jacob Rees-Mogg,” she said.

Asked if direct rule should be introduced to reverse the health crisis in Northern Ireland, Sir Jeffrey said he supported this if no agreement to restore Stormont was reached by January.

Ms O’Neill said “direct rule is not an option” and argued the health service was really in crisis because of many years of Conservative austerity.

She went on to accuse the SDLP leader of refusing to return to Stormont by having preconditions.

Mr Eastwood rejected this and said “I’m a little sick of fake news today” — referring to a series of fake election material distributed in his name.

Mr Aiken said patients could not afford further months of “faffing around” to deal with the health crisis.

Ms Long said direct rule would be “a failure of devolution” but that if there was no agreement to restore Stormont by January 13, there would be “no alternative”.

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