Northern Ireland party leaders clash over border poll and protocol in TV election debate


Northern Ireland’s political leaders have clashed over the potential for a border poll, post-Brexit trade deals and the cost of living crisis during a televised debate ahead of the election.

UP Chair Jeffrey Donaldson, Vice President of Sinn Fein Michelle O’Neill, Alliance Party Chair Naomi Long, SDLP Chair Colum Eastwood and Ulster Unionist Chair Doug Beattie took part in the UTV election debate the parliamentary elections on Thursday.

Following opening statements from leaders, Ms O’Neill was questioned about an article in the Sunday Times which said Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney had been in touch with Saoradh, a group accused of ties to the New IRA, about a potential “co-operation agreement” on achieving a border survey.

The New IRA is the dissident Republican group linked to the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, who died after being hit by a bullet during riots in the Creggan area of ​​Londonderry in 2019.

Ms O’Neill said: “Today there should be no gangs involved in crime or armed action.

“Declan Kearney, as leader of our party, has reached out to these people to tell them that they must now work toward unity and change the constitutional position, but only by consensus, only through public cooperation.”

Sir Jeffrey said that Sinn Fein tried to hide the fact that “their top priority is to push for a border poll”.

He added: “This election is a clear choice between our five-point plan, which is about tackling the issues that people out there really care about, or Sinn Féin’s divisive border poll.”

Mr Eastwood said more focus should be placed on the cost of living crisis.

Referring to Saoradh he said: “These people will not be involved with me in trying to build a new Ireland, they have nothing to offer.”

Mr Beattie said there had been no move towards a united Ireland in the polls since 1998.

He said: “The reality is we’re not going to get anywhere near that, nor will there be a border poll.”

Ms Long said the general election was not a referendum on the border issue.

She added: “When it comes to working with paramilitary organizations, we should only speak to them when they stop.”

Discussion then turned to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the DUP’s decision to overthrow the power-sharing executive in Stormont earlier this year in protest at the post-Brexit trade deal, which unionists see as a border in the Irish Sea.

Jeffrey said: “I hope there will be another Stormont government, but we need to build a durable, stable political institution in Stormont.

“The Protocol casts a long shadow over the political process in Northern Ireland, undermining political stability. No trade unionist supports this protocol and we must return to consensual politics.”

Ms Long replied: “The DUP had a tremendous influence during the Brexit process and we ended up with the protocol.

“Whatever the protocol and its difficulties, we can’t stop having a government just because people don’t like certain aspects of politics.”

Mr Beattie said the only way to deal with the protocol’s challenges is with commitment.

He added: “Backing into a corner just doesn’t work.”

Ms O’Neill called on other party leaders to join her in forming a new executive on the first day after the Stormont election.

She said: “I’m ready to show up on day one, let’s have a discussion of party leaders, let’s form a leader and do business for the public.”

Mr Eastwood said the DUP’s decision to step down from the executive meant £300million in Stormont funds could not be spent.

He added: “Even people who are out and about come home and can’t turn their heating on, that’s a shame in today’s world and Stormont has been sitting on his hands.”

Jeffrey replied: “There is an executive branch, there are ministers, the executive branch just doesn’t meet. The £300m has been transferred, it will be spent.”

Ms O’Neill accused the DUP leader of being “absolutely dishonest”.

She said: “There is no executive, we have no executive because the DUP is gone.

“There are things a leader can do. Jeffrey isn’t telling the public if he’s coming in with the rest of us and putting money in people’s pockets.”

Ms Long said ministers had received clear legal advice that without an executive they could not take action to ease Northern Ireland’s cost of living crisis.

She added, “We have plans for how we might spend this money, but we can’t do it without a leader.”

Mr Beattie said: “We’ve all let people down – £300m wouldn’t solve all their problems but it would put money in their pockets in the short term.

“We need to look at what we can do in the short term. What we need to do is fix this for people.” Northern Ireland party leaders clash over border poll and protocol in TV election debate

Fry Electronics Team

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