General Election 2019: Parties clash during UTV election debate

UTV election debate

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The debate took place at the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast on Sunday evening.

The five main Stormont parties have clashed over Brexit, healthcare and the collapse of the assembly in the UTV election debate.

It took place at the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast on Sunday evening.

The general election takes place on Thursday, with 18 Westminster seats in Northern Ireland at stake.

Four of the Stormont leaders attended the debate, while the DUP was represented by Emma Little-Pengelly.

She faced pressure over the ongoing pay dispute in the health sector, which has seen nursing and health care unions taking industrial action in recent weeks over calls for pay parity with their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

Earlier in December, DUP leader Arlene Foster said her colleague Jim Wells had been Stormont’s health minister when the initial decision was taken to alter pay levels from those in Great Britain, citing financial challenges at the time.

Mrs Little-Pengelly said the only way to resolve the matter was to restore power-sharing immediately.

But Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill, also a former health minister, said the decision to break parity was solely taken by the DUP and that people should be angry at the Conservatives for pursuing austerity policies in the first place.

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said an “emergency” had developed in health care and he has asked the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith to intervene further and instruct a higher pay offer to the unions.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she had written to the Department of Health’s top civil servant, Richard Pengelly, telling him she would offer him “political cover” to act without a minister’s direction, and offer another pay offer.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood argued politics must “be taken out of health”, and that similar funding pressures within other Stormont departments were about to “explode”.

No-one landed any major blows, but the tone in this debate was more aggressive than what we’ve witnessed for most of the campaign.

Perhaps that is not a surprise given polling takes place in just four days’ time – the battle for votes is almost over.

Maybe it can’t end soon enough for the politicians, who took to repeating the same arguments they have been making since the election was called in October.

They will face each other again in a second TV showdown on Tuesday night on BBC One NI.

Come Thursday, it’s out of the parties’ hands and over to voters to give their verdict.

On Brexit, there was no meeting of minds between the five politicians either.

The DUP faced criticism for initially supporting Boris Johnson as prime minister, with Mr Aiken claiming the DUP had allowed the union to be “fundamentally undermined” – but Mrs Little-Pengelly said it was DUP MPs who had helped stop Mr Johnson from getting his deal through Parliament so far.

The pro-remain agreement forged by Sinn Féin and the SDLP during the election campaign to try and unseat DUP MPs also appeared to come under strain.

The parties are standing aside for each other in certain constituencies, but are also locked in an electoral battle for some seats.

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Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017

Mr Eastwood said the only way to stop Brexit was to elect MPs who would show up to Westminster and vote against it – but Ms O’Neill accused the SDLP leader of “dishonesty”.

She defended Sinn Féin’s long-standing policy of abstentionism and said her party’s voice was better heard outside of the Commons.

Mrs Long maintained Alliance’s support for another EU referendum, arguing Mr Johnson would deliver a “lame donkey Brexit”.

The parties also debated the lack of a functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland.

January 2020 will mark three years since the assembly collapsed, after a bitter row between the parties over a green energy financial scandal.

All five politicians said they were committed to attending talks the week after the general election to restore power-sharing, but were at odds over what a deal should contain.

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