Northern Ireland leaders trade Brexit barbs as election looms – POLITICO

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BELFAST – Rival leaders clashed on Tuesday night in their last televised debate ahead of a Northern Ireland general election, which has been widely forecast to see the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party become the largest in British territory for the first time.

Expected profits for sense fine – committed to Northern Ireland’s exit from the UK and union with the Republic of Ireland next door – would be at Jeffrey Donaldson’s expense Democratic Unioniststhe only major local party supporting Brexit.

As the dominant forces on either side of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide, the DUP and Sinn Féin are to work together at the helm inter-community government in line with the region’s 1998 peace accord. However, Donaldson has refused to confirm that he would accept power-sharing role No. 2 should Sinn Féin overtake his pro-British party in the multi-round post-election count on Thursday.

As he had throughout the six-week election campaign, Donaldson found himself politically isolated during Tuesday night’s debate about his party opposition to the post-Brexit trade deals known as the Protocol, part of the Withdrawal Agreement that kept Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods after the rest of the UK left the bloc.

This rule means that customs and health checks on British goods should take place when they arrive in Northern Ireland and not when they cross the accessible border into the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. However, the UK government has refused to introduce sweeping controls as it seeks to trim them in negotiations with the European Commission. The DUP argues that physical checks into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK constitute an unacceptable border along the Irish Sea.

“We cannot have political stability in Northern Ireland as long as the Protocol remains in place,” Donaldson told four other party leaders live audience at the BBC Studios in Belfast. “The damage this protocol is doing affects everyone.”

All the latest polls suggest that Donaldson’s position – in a UK region where Irish nationalists opposed Brexit and see the protocol as the best way to minimize trade disruption – was not a vote win for the DUP. The party’s pre-election ploy to ditch the top power-sharing post of First Minister has weakened its claim to be a responsible governing party.

Other party leaders accused Donaldson unnecessarily crippling the ability of her now leaderless government to spend more than £300m in UK funds, which could potentially be lost and flow back into the Treasury coffers in London. They said those funds should already have been used to subsidize household utilities and cut hospital waiting lists, the worst in Britain

“The DUP is dishonest to the public. They’re holding us all for ransom,” said Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, whose campaign has emphasized bread-and-butter issues rather than the overarching goal of uniting Ireland.

The last opinion poll before the election, published Tuesday in the Irish News in Belfast, retained Sinn Féin’s lead with 26.6 per cent support.

Alarmingly for the DUP, its support plummeted to just 18.2 percent, down two points from the start of a campaign marked by ill-tempered union rallies condemning the protocol in Brussels and Dublin.

This brought the DUP up to par with the upswing for the first time alliance party, a pro-EU voice seeking voices from both sides of the community. The poll result of 18.2 percent support for Alliance was 3.5 percentage points higher than the same poll a month ago.

The survey, overseen by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, had an error rate of 3.1 points.

Alliance leader Naomi Long accused Donaldson’s DUP of sabotaging good government in Northern Ireland while trying to reverse a Brexit outcome she had helped achieve in alliance with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

“Do your job, step up and say you’re ready to form a government,” Long, the justice minister in Northern Ireland’s current caretaker government, told Donaldson alongside her.

As a center party, Alliance is better positioned to attract lower-preference votes from both sides of the community. That could prove crucial as Alliance seeks its own historic breakthrough.

Voters will be asked on Thursday to rank candidates in five-seat constituencies in order of preference. Successful candidates must attract “vote transfers” as election officials gradually eliminate lowest-ranking candidates and transfer their votes to others still contending for a seat. The top winners in each constituency will be announced on Friday, but full results are not expected until Saturday. Northern Ireland leaders trade Brexit barbs as election looms - POLITICO

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