NI parties clash over Brexit and Westminster representation during TV debate
The leaders of all the parties took part in the BBC NI debate, apart from DUP chief Arlene Foster.
Senior figures from Northern Ireland’s political parties have clashed over Brexit and representation at Westminster just days before voters are due to go to the polls.
Although billed as a leaders’ debate, DUP Lagan Valley candidate Jeffrey Donaldson appeared on the BBC NI show on Tuesday evening instead of his party leader Arlene Foster.
Sinn Fein was represented by its NI leader Michelle O’Neill alongside SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, UUP leader Steve Aiken and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long.
The first question put to the five politicians by a member of the audience was: “Do you believe Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely?”.
Mr Eastwood said he believes the first thing to be dealt with is “the emergency that is Brexit”, and called for a second referendum to “stop this Brexit madness”.
Mr Donaldson downplayed the suggestion of a threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK due to Brexit, and opposed a second referendum.
He slated “poor negotiation” on Brexit by the UK Government, and restated his party’s opposition to Boris Johnson’s proposed deal.
“My message to unionists is to send a strong unionist team back to Westminster, that’s what unionists want,” he said, emphasising that his party has been “crucial on Brexit”.
Ms O’Neill responded saying Brexit may prompt people to rethink their stance on a united Ireland, if leaving the UK would mean re-entering the EU.
Ms Long said she believes Brexit has “certainly made Northern Ireland less stable”, and restating her party’s position in favour of a second referendum.
Mr Aiken said Mr Johnson’s deal makes Northern Ireland “a place apart”, and called for the proposals to be stopped.
Several of the leaders rounded on Ms O’Neill over Sinn Fein’s policy of not taking their seats at Westminster.
She insisted “one or two Irish MPs won’t make a difference”, in response to criticism by Mr Eastwood and Mr Aiken.
Mr Aiken put to Ms O’Neill that her MPs in the last parliament were often seen sitting in coffee shops and questioned, “why not take your seats on the green benches”?
“You are pretending you can go to Westminster and stop Brexit, that is nonsense,” Ms O’Neill replied.
The SDLP leader, who is running in Foyle, restated that if elected he will take his seat in Westminster.
Ms Long also pressed Ms O’Neill over abstentionism.
Ms O’Neill responded saying her MPs will never take an oath of allegiance to the Queen.
The parties also clashed when asked whether direct rule should be reintroduced to deal with a crisis in the health service.
Mr Donaldson said he wants to see a devolved health minister back in place, but if the talks to revive Stormont do not result in agreement by the January 13 deadline, then direct rule should be considered.
Ms O’Neill said direct rule is “not an option” and urged more money for the health service from Westminster.
Mr Aiken said the “time has gone for faffing around … let’s get someone in place to make the political decisions now”.
Ms Long said she regarded direct rule as “a failure of devolution”, but cautioned if agreement is not reached by January 13, the Secretary of State needs to find “a form of government that actually can work” or call another election.
Mr Eastwood said no to direct rule, stating he wants to see Stormont back.
However, all the parties were closer to agreement when answering the final question over the climate emergency.
Mr Aiken said his party’s position was to get to zero net carbon by 2035 and that he wanted to see change how public transport is done, address fuel poverty, change how electricity is generated and change the economy.
Mr Eastwood said he would like to see carbon neutrality by 2030.
“This is not climate change any more, this is an absolute crisis,” he said, adding that they “needed to go after the oil and gas companies”, claiming “they are the ones who have created this problem”.
Ms Long said: “No-one needs convincing this climate emergency is real”, adding “we are reaching a tipping point”, and said her party has a target of zero emissions by 2030, and want to see more investment in renewables.
Mr Donaldson said his party believes in action to tackle climate change.
“In Parliament we have voted for those targets time and time again to reduce our carbon emissions in the United Kingdom and we will keep on doing that because we recognise there is a real threat to the future of our planet,” he said.
Ms O’Neill said her party wants to see a independent climate change agency and bring forward legislation to enforce targets.
“There is a whole lot of things we could be do, the green new deal, creating green-collar jobs, there’s an opportunity for us to do something better for the economy and for the environment,” she said.
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