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Televised debate dominated by Brexit and border poll

The leader's debate panel of Naomi Long, Nigel Dodds, Robin Swann, Michelle O'Neill and Colum Eastwood. Picture by Mal McCann

FOUR leaders and one deputy leader from the north's main parties clashed over Brexit and a border poll in the first televised leaders' debate of the Westminster election campaign.

Last night's one-hour UTV broadcast saw DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds stand-in for Arlene Foster in what was a lively if largely predictable series of exchanges.

The Marc Mallet-hosted debate kicked off with a discussion about security in the aftermath of the recent attacks in London and Manchester.

Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O'Neill, who has faced recent criticism for marking the 30th anniversary of the killings of eight IRA members at Loughgall in Co Armagh, said there was an "international perspective to terrorism" which needed more than just a security solution.

However, Mr Dodds labelled the Mid Ulster MLA a "disgrace" and accused her of "eulogising terrorists", while Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann, taking part in his first leaders' debate, said there must be an end to the "glorification of terrorism".

Mr Dodds's comments were met with claims that his party was being endorsed by the loyalist UDA, which remains involved in racketeering.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said anybody who was watching in Manchester would be embarrassed by how the debate had quickly descended, while his Alliance counterpart Naomi Long noted that it did not take long for the panelists to resort to the "normal mud-slinging".

As the debate moved to a border poll, Ms O'Neill said Brexit had transformed the context, while Mr Eastwood said it was no longer just about a united Ireland but re-entering the European Union.

Robin Swann said his party was now committed to severing ties with Brussels and agreed with Nigel Dodds that a unity referendum would create uncertainty.

Mrs Long said a border poll would be divisive but insisted Brexit was not a foregone conclusion.

Recording was briefly halted while the Alliance leader recovered after appearing to come close to fainting in the warm studio.

When the debate resumed, Ms O'Neill said Sinn Féin would "walk in" to a restored executive if past agreements were honoured. Mr Eastwood said unionism should not dominate nationalists in the executive or vice-versa.

Mr Dodds said the executive could be "up and running next Monday" if Sinn Féin desired and he denied his party had created fresh red lines.

Mrs Long said the DUP had shown a lack of respect for all its executive colleagues – "not just Sinn Féin".

The Ulster Unionist leader warned that the north was on the verge of "going into an abyss" with direct rule.

The corresponding BBC debate will take place tonight and broadcast live between 9pm-10pm.

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