By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Northern Ireland’s political leaders have clashed over the potential for a Border poll, post-Brexit trading arrangements and the cost-of-living crisis during a televised pre-election debate.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie took part in the UTV election debate ahead of Thursday’s Assembly poll.
Following opening statements from the leaders, Ms O’Neill was asked about an article in the Sunday Times which stated that Sinn Féin’s chairperson Declan Kearney had made contact with Saoradh, a group accused of having links to the New IRA, about a potential “co-operation agreement” over achieving a Border poll.
The New IRA is the dissident republican group linked to the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, who died after being struck by a bullet during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry in 2019.
Ms O’Neill said: “No gang who is involved in criminality, armed action, should exist today.
“Declan Kearney, as the chairperson of our party, has reached out to those people to say that they must now work towards unity and changing the constitutional position, but only by consent, only by the public working together.”
Mr Donaldson said that Sinn Féin had been trying to hide the fact that “their number one 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 which really matter to the people out there 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: “Those 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 movement in the polls towards a united Ireland since 1998.
He said: “The reality is we are not going anywhere near it and there won’t be a Border poll either.”
Mrs Long said the Assembly election was not a referendum on the Border question.
She added: “When it comes to engaging with paramilitary organisations, the only conversation we should be having with them is when they are going to stop.”
The discussion then turned to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the DUP decision to collapse the Stormont powersharing Executive earlier this year in protest at the post-Brexit trading arrangement which unionists see as a Border in the Irish Sea.
Mr Donaldson said: “I hope there will be a Stormont government again but what we need to do is build a durable, stable political institution at Stormont.
“The protocol is casting its long shadow over the political process in Northern Ireland, it is undermining political stability. No unionist supports this protocol, and we need to get back to the politics of consensus.”
Mrs Long responded: “The DUP had a huge amount of influence during the Brexit process, and we ended up with the protocol.
“Whatever about the protocol and its difficulties, we can’t stop having government simply because people don’t like particular aspects of politics.”
Mr Beattie said that the only way to deal with challenges presented by the protocol was through engagement.
He added: “Withdrawing yourself to a corner simply doesn’t work.”
Ms O’Neill urged the other party leaders to join her in forming a new Executive on the first day after the Stormont election.
She said: “I am ready to turn up on day one, let’s have a party leaders’ discussion, let’s form an executive and do the business for the public.”
Mr Eastwood said the DUP decision to walk away from the Executive meant that £300 million (€357 million) of Stormont funds cannot be spent.
He added: “Even people who are out working are coming home and not able to turn their heating on, that is a disgrace in today’s world and Stormont has been sitting on its hands.”
Sir Jeffrey responded: “There is an Executive, there are ministers in place, the Executive simply isn’t meeting. The £300 million has been carried over, it will be spent.”
Ms O’Neill accused the DUP leader of being “absolutely dishonest”.
She said: “There is no Executive, we do not have an Executive because the DUP walked away.
“There are things that an Executive can do. Jeffrey is not telling the public if he is going to come in with the rest of us and put money into people’s pockets.”
Mrs Long said ministers had received clear legal advice that they could not take measures to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis in Northern Ireland without an Executive.
She added: “We have plans how we could spend that money, but we can’t do it without an Executive.”
Mr Beattie said: “All of us have failed people – £300 million wouldn’t fix all the problems, but it would give them money in their pockets in the short term.
“We need to look at what other things we can do in the short term. What we need to do is fix this for the people.”