Northern Ireland parties clash in UTV election debate

Stormont's five main parties taking part in the UTV election debate
Stormont's five main parties taking part in the UTV election debate [ Press Eye/PA]

Northern Ireland's five main parties have clashed over Brexit, Stormont's budget and Irish unity in the UTV election debate.

It was held in the television station’s Belfast studio and aired on Sunday evening.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Gavin Robinson and Sinn Féin’s John Finucane were among the participants.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) deputy leader Robbie Butler also took part.

The UK general election is on 4 July, with 18 seats in Northern Ireland at stake.

Mr Robinson defended the DUP’s deal which saw the party in February end its two-year boycott of Stormont's devolved government and legislative assembly.

The DUP leader last month accepted their agreement with the UK government aimed at addressing unionist concerns over post-Brexit trade checks had been oversold.

But Mr Robinson, who is seeking re-election in the Belfast East constituency, said he wants to "build on the progress we have achieved”.

He said the "full fruits" of the DUP’s work would be seen "later this year".

"It’s very clear the roadmap is there. We have attained progress when others either did not care, or did not try," he said.

'Chaos of Brexit'

Mrs Long, who is challenging Mr Robinson for the Belfast East seat, criticised the DUP's record at Westminster.

"The DUP have delivered in the last term - they delivered the chaos of Brexit. They delivered the collapse of the Assembly. They delivered a very negative outlook from Northern Ireland," she said.

The Alliance leader said a "more positive voice needs to be heard" at Westminster.

Mr Finucane defended Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism which means its MPs do not take their seats in the House of Commons.

He said Sinn Féin MPs speak "directly to British government ministers".

Mr Finucane, who is seeking re-election in Belfast North, also said the party's MPs make representations in Dublin, Brussels and the US.

Mr Eastwood, who is seeking re-election in Foyle, said "the public are damaged" when there is an absence of representation in the Commons.

"I firmly believe that unless you're there, you just don't count," the SDLP leader added.

"If you ask MPs from across the political spectrum in Westminster, they wouldn’t really know who Sinn Féin MPs are."

Mr Butler, who is standing for the UUP in the Lagan Valley constituency, criticised Sinn Féin and the DUP for collapsing the Stormont executive in previous years.

He defended his party opposing Stormont's budget while remaining part of Northern Ireland’s four-party executive.

The UUP deputy leader said the budget allocation for the health portfolio, which his party holds, was unfair.

"We don't think there was a fair allocation and we're working with our executive partners to see that remedied," he said.

"We see no contradiction in our position."

Irish unity 'like severing my own leg'

The senior party figures also clashed over the prospect of Northern Ireland leaving the UK to join with the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Robinson said it was a "boring repetition of an aspiration which has gained no traction whatsoever over the last 25 years".

The DUP leader said talking about Irish unity was "as attractive as having a polite conversation about severing my own leg".

He also criticised the Alliance leader - whose party is unaligned on the constitutional question - for agreeing to attend a conference by a group campaigning for a united Ireland.

Mrs Long later pulled out of the Ireland's Future event and instead spent time with party candidates, including a visit to amusements in Portrush, County Antrim.

Mr Robinson said he would not attend an Ireland's Future event, adding: "I wouldn't agree to go outside of an election and then hide in Barry's on a ghost train for fear of spooking potential electors during an election."

Mrs Long responded: "I wasn’t hiding - I was out campaigning."

The Alliance leader said that to "describe either of the constitutional settlements" in the way Mr Robinson had was "insulting to a huge section of the electorate".

Sinn Féin’s Mr Finucane said the discussion should be advanced by the Irish government, arguing that the Dublin administration had paid only "lip service" to the issue.

SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said the discussion should be part of a "process of reconciliation" and there were "huge opportunities" from being part of an all-island economy.

But Mr Butler said he had yet to hear anything to convince him of constitutional change.

The UUP assembly member said that “as a unionist it is my responsibility to see Northern Ireland work, to see Northern Ireland thrive”.

In the last Westminster election in 2019, the DUP won the most seats in Northern Ireland with eight, while Sinn Féin came second with seven. The SDLP secured two seats and Alliance one.

Sinn Féin became the largest party at Stormont for the first time in Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2022, and repeated the feat at council level in 2023.

The five party leaders are also due to take part in the BBC Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night, where they will answer questions in front of a studio audience.

This will be broadcast on BBC One NI from 21:00 BST.

Analysis: Debate may sharpen battle lines

As expected this debate brought some robust and at times feisty exchanges between Northern Ireland's five main parties.

With two Stormont leaders absent, the key battle was between the DUP's Gavin Robinson and Alliance's Naomi Long - both vying for the same MP seat in Belfast East.

Sinn Féin's John Finucane and the SDLP's Colum Eastwood also disagreed over whether Irish nationalists should take their seats at Westminster.

As for UUP deputy leader Robbie Butler, he will be hoping the TV airtime will have helped raise his profile in the fight for the Lagan Valley constituency.

The election campaign in Northern Ireland has been pretty sluggish so far, but this debate may sharpen battle lines.

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