Northern Ireland news

Video: 'What about a bit of respect Michelle?', Arlene Foster asks Sinn Féin leader

From left Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Michelle O'Neill (Sinn Féin), Arlene Foster (DUP), Mike Nesbitt (UUP), and Naomi Long (Alliance) at the BBC Leaders' Debate. Picture by William Cherry, Press Eye

THE leaders of Stormont’s five biggest parties clashed on live television last night with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) sparking lively exchanges.

The one-hour live BBC leaders’ debate was hosted by Noel Thompson and came ten days after a corresponding broadcast on UTV.

Making what is most likely their final pitch on television ahead of tomorrow’s poll, Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill, Mike Nesbitt, Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long fielded questions from an audience on the election’s hot topics.

Following the 10 o’clock news, representatives from the Greens, TUV and People Before Profit gathered in the same studio to discuss the earlier debate and the key issues of the campaign.

Inevitably, the theme of the first question in the leaders’ debate was the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and what each party had learned from the scandal.

Mrs Foster insisted the botched green energy scheme would not cost the predicted £490m because cost controls had been introduced.

However, Ms O’Neill pointed out that the recently-introduced measures were only effective for a year. She also insisted that she knew nothing of the scheme’s largess when agriculture minister, even though her department actively promoted it.

Sinn Féin's northern leader also clashed with her SDLP counterpart, whose party voted against closing the RHI in February 2016.

Mr Eastwood claimed he did so because the DUP and Sinn Féin “did not tell the public about the black hole in the public finances”.

Mrs Long said the DUP had “presided over chaos” and argued that the botched scheme was never the success others claimed it was.

At one point, as the debate heated up, Mrs Foster challenged the senior Sinn Féin politician with: “What about a bit of respect Michelle?”

The quick retort from Ms O’Neill was: “What about respect for the public?”

After a question about cross-community voting, Mr Nesbitt defended his pledge to transfer his vote to the SDLP, saying the election was an “opportunity to bring about change”.

He said the UUP and SDLP were “two parties who will form a partnership of the willing”.

But Mrs Foster claimed the Ulster Unionist leader’s tactic was “ensuring more nationalists are coming into the assembly’.

Mr Eastwood cited the DUP’s focus on the Sinn Féin president: “She’s talking about Gerry Adams more than she’s talking about anything else”

Mrs Long said her party fights “every election on a cross community basis”.

When Ms O’Neill was asked who Sinn Féin voters should transfer to, she said “any party that’s progressive and anti-Brexit".

Student leader Fergal McFerran asked about the leaders’ priorities for the Brexit negotiations.

Ms O’Neill said there was a “need to engage with the rest of Europe” and said that her party’s MPs taking Westminster seats “would not make a difference”.

Mrs Long said access to the customs union was important and accused the British government of not taking Northern Ireland’s issues seriously.

Mr Eastwood said his party wanted free movement.

“The British government don’t know what they want – they haven’t a clue,” he said.

Arlene Foster said her party was “very much pro-Brexit” and that the DUP would “work with the government not against the government to get a good deal from Northern Ireland”.

Mrs Foster faced criticism from her fellow panellists over the £425,00 donation from Constitutional Research Council.


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