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Brexit fall-out, finances and a unified Ireland dominate leaders’ TV debate

Senior representatives from Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP participated in the UTV debate on Sunday.

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Robbie Butler, Naomi Long, Colum Eastwood, John Finucane and Gavin Robinson, sitting in UTV studio ahead of the UTV Election Debate with moderator Vicki Hawthorne

The fall-out from Brexit, discord over calls for a united Ireland and Stormont’s perilous financial position dominated in the first major TV debate of the General Election campaign in Northern Ireland.

Senior representatives from Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP participated in the UTV debate on Sunday.

The line-up included three party leaders – the DUP’s Gavin Robinson, Alliance’s Naomi Long and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood – while Sinn Fein was represented by its North Belfast candidate John Finucane and the UUP by its deputy leader and Lagan Valley candidate Robbie Butler.

The debate, which was largely even-tempered in nature, was held in UTV’s studios in the City Quays 2 building in Belfast and moderated by the broadcaster’s political correspondent Vicki Hawthorne.

City Quays 1 and City Quays 2 at Laganside, Belfast, at night
The debate took place at UTV’s City Quays 2 studios (Alamy/PA)

The hour-long programme began with Mr Robinson being challenged on the DUP’s endorsement of the UK Government command paper on post-Brexit trade that the party used to justify dropping its two-year blockade on powersharing at Stormont earlier this year.

The DUP leader said he did not accept the suggestion that his party had oversold the deal, as he claimed the package of measures achieved some progress in addressing unionist concerns over trade and sovereignty, but that work remained to be done.

“It’s very clear the roadmap is there, we have attained progress when others either did not care or did not try and we are standing on our record of achieving for the people who elect us,” he said.

Mr Finucane was pressed on Sinn Fein’s long-standing abstentionist policy at Westminster in the context of the decisions taken on the shape of the Brexit withdrawal over recent years.

He insisted his party’s voice had been clearly heard in London through direct meetings with Government ministers and senior opposition MPs.

Mr Finucane said Sinn Fein representatives had also brought their message to the heart of the political establishment in Brussels and Washington.

“If we go back and actually look at the outworking of what the British government were intent on doing, there wasn’t a single vote (in Parliament) that was going to stop the Brexit project,” he said.

“And I think that when we have a chamber that, by its very nature, is designed to make MPs from here irrelevant, the real work gets done when we engage with them directly. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Mr Eastwood was asked what difference the SDLP actually made by taking its seats in Westminster. He said he firmly believed that unless elected MPs attend Parliament “you just don’t count”.

He said his party had been a voice for “common sense” in the House of Commons.

“If you’re asking MPs from across the political spectrum in Westminster, they wouldn’t really know who Sinn Fein’s MPs are,” he added.

Ms Long said there was a need for other voices other than the DUP to be represented at Westminster.

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

“What I want to do and what my colleagues want to do is to project that more positive element of Northern Ireland, to talk about what we can achieve and what we can do and the support that we need to be able to enable that. I think that that more positive voice needs to be heard.”

Those remarks prompted one of the debate’s more robust exchanges, with Mr Robinson then accusing Ms Long and the other parties of ignoring unionist concerns about post-Brexit trading agreements.

“They did not care for our concerns, and that is damaging, that is not how progress will be made in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Ms Long said the fault for the problems Northern Ireland had faced post-Brexit lay at the door of the DUP, for not only campaigning for a UK exit from the EU but also by “championing the hardest Brexit”.

“It’s unfair I think to create a problem and then expect everyone else to take responsibility for the consequences of it while you live in denial,” she told Mr Robinson.

Mr Butler said his party had been consistent through the Brexit process, warning of the potential damage a UK exit from the EU might inflict on Northern Ireland.

Robbie Butler, Naomi Long, Colum Eastwood, John Finucane and Gavin Robinson, ahead of the UTV Election Debate with moderator Vicki Hawthorne
The UTV Election Debate with moderator Vicki Hawthorne lasted an hour (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

He also accused Sinn Fein and the DUP of making the people of the region “suffer the consequences of political failure” with their moves to collapse powersharing for two lengthy periods over the last seven years.

He said his party would pursue more “positive” politics at Westminster.

“It would be making Northern Ireland work, and it wouldn’t be the belligerent politics which I grew up with, which I want to see changed,” he said.

The second part of the debate focused on Stormont’s bleak financial picture.

Mr Finucane insisted it was a “lazy narrative” to suggest the solution was Stormont imposing more revenue-raising measures on people in the region.

He said the local parties instead needed to take a united approach in pressing the Treasury for more money.

“What we need is that collective voice pushing back against the Treasury, pushing back against Westminster, and demanding the bare minimum resources that we need to improve, particularly public resources like health and education,” he said.

Mr Butler was challenged whether his party had acted responsibly in recently voting against the Stormont budget that was agreed by the other Executive parties. Former UUP health minister Robin Swann opposed the budget plan after claiming the allocation to his department would inflict significant damage on health service delivery.

“We have responsibility for the health portfolio and it’s very clear that hundreds of millions of pounds short is going to cause harm to the people of Northern Ireland,” said Mr Butler.

“We don’t think there was a fair allocation and we’re working with our Executive partners to see that remedied and we want to see that remedied as quickly as possible.”

Ms Long accused political rivals of avoiding “difficult decisions” when it came to reforming and restructuring public services in Northern Ireland.

She also said there were other ways to raise revenue, such as taxing corporations and the super-rich, rather than introducing new charges on “hard-pressed families”.

Ms Long said Northern Ireland was underfunded from London but she said there was also a need to address the cost of division in the region, with many services duplicated as a consequence of the need to provide services to divided communities.

“There can be no escaping the reality that when we get that money, we have to be accountable for how we spend it,” she said.

“We can’t overspend, we can’t waste. And we need to look, before we start dipping into the pockets of hard-pressed members of the public, we need to look at the money that is wasted on the cost of division in our society.”

Mr Eastwood said Northern Ireland was an economic “basket case” and the financial situation once again demonstrated the need for local MPs to attend Westminster to press the next government for more funding.

“Whilst we would love to see more fiscal powers in Northern Ireland, the powers right now rest in London, so we’ve got to go there, as much as I don’t want to, we’ve got to go there, hold them to account and speak up for the people here,” he said.

Mr Robinson made clear his party was opposed to revenue-raising measures. He said people had a higher tax burden now than at any time since the Second World War.

“I’m not sure that there’s a strong appetite there to hear about more fiscal devolution, which means more revenue raising, which means more difficulty for hard-pressed working families,” he said.

The final part of the debate focused on the long-running wrangle over Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.

Mr Robinson said he had no interest in participating in a societal conversation about breaking up the United Kingdom.

“As a unionist I can say this is a boring repetition of an aspiration which has gained no traction whatsoever over the last 25 years,” he said.

“The combined vote of nationalists and republicanism within Northern Ireland has not grown one bit in 25 years. So, it’s not gaining traction. As a unionist, the idea of having a casual or a polite or an engaging conversation about this issue about severing my own country is about as attractive as having a polite conversation about severing my own leg.”

Mr Finucane was asked about recent comments from former taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he suggested the process of changing hearts and minds in relation to constitutional change would require the republican movement making a specific apology for its actions during the Troubles.

The senior Sinn Fein representative, whose father Pat was murdered by loyalists during the Troubles, said his party had not been found wanting when it came to moves towards reconciliation.

But he said issues around forgiveness should be detached from the debate on a new Ireland.

“That’s a separate conversation, it’s a personal conversation, and it’s something that is very emotive and I would say should be divorced at the right time from this conversation, which is about looking towards the future,” he said.

Ms Long was pressed several times on why her party did not take a position on the constitutional question.

She urged her political rivals to respect the fact she was neutral on the issue.

But she said Alliance still wanted to participate in the wider debate.

“We want to be part of that conversation because it will be our future as much as anyone else’s,” she said.

“The important thing though for me is that, first and foremost, as politicians, we won’t be the people who make those decisions, it’ll be the public who make those decisions at the ballot box in a referendum.”

Mr Butler said nationalists and republicans had been unable to agree a shared vision of what a united Ireland might look like.

“As a unionist, it is my responsibility to see Northern Ireland work, to see Northern Ireland thrive and I’m not picking up anything certainly from the unionist community and even from many in the nationalist community, who are not having that conversation (about unification) at the moment,” he said.

“And that’s not to diminish the rights of the SDLP or Sinn Fein or any others to take part in those conversations. But I’m not picking up any sense that we’re at that point.

“And, in fact, my priority will be to have the alternative conversation, which is to make Northern Ireland the most prosperous place in the United Kingdom and indeed on these islands.”

Mr Eastwood said “reconciliation” had to be at the heart of any debate about unifying Ireland.

“I want that conversation to be a process of reconciliation where we explain to people that we can unite these communities again, we can bring people together, we can give people a better chance in life, a better economic outlook, better public services.

“I think that’s a prize worth having, and being part of the European Union again,” he said.

“I think no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, we have to understand this is not about fixing historic wrongs, this is about building a future together.”

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