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Stormont Elections

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

The leaders of the five largest parties in Northern Ireland participated in the UTV Election Debate show.

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 Fein 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, O’Neill was asked about an article in the Sunday Times which stated that Sinn Fein’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.

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.”

Donaldson said that Sinn Fein 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 Fein’s divisive border poll.”

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.”

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.”

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 he 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.

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.”

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