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It was billed as the Leaders' Debate but was just 3 leaders and 2 candidates

From left, John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin), Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP), Colum Eastwood (SDLP), Robin Swann (UUP) and Naomi Long (Alliance) take part in a BBC election debate. Picture by William Cherry, Press Eye

IT was billed as the Leaders' Debate but in the end it was just three party leaders and two Westminster candidates.

The exchanges were nonetheless lively and combative and, in common with the UTV debate the previous day, Brexit, a border poll and abstentionism dominated the BBC's hour-long live broadcast last night.

With less than 36 hours to go before the polls open, Noel Thompson chaired proceedings as an audience fired questions at the five panellists.

The first asked if the north's constitutional status was over-shadowing campaigning on bread and butter issues like health and education.

The DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who had replaced Nigel Dodds in the line-up after the deputy leader's mother fell ill, claimed people would be worse off if there was a united Ireland.

Sinn Féin's former education minister John O'Dowd, standing in for an under-the-weather Michelle O'Neill, said the constitutional question was important but he rejected claims that people would have to pay for healthcare in a 'new Ireland'.

"Nine decades after partition, partition has failed," he candidate said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said everybody was entitled to a constitutional position, while Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said he represented a "progressive unionism".

The debate then moved on to the recent terror attacks in Britain as an audience member asked "How do we oppose terrorism and its causes?"

Alliance leader Naomi Long said people had personal choices to make about whether they got involved in violence but she advocated addressing the root causes that made some people feel alienated.

"We in Northern Ireland should understand this," she said.

Mr O'Dowd said there was no justification for violence but castigated those "Western nations" who he said had created a "climate of fear".

Mr Swann said he agreed with Theresa May's bid to tackle radicalisation.

Sir Jeffrey was challenged to disassociate himself from the Loyalist Communities Council's endorsement of DUP candidates but said he would "take no lessons" from Alliance or Sinn Féin, claiming the former's representatives met regularly with paramilitaries.

Mr Eastwood said there was too much focus on the past in the debate and highlighted how the British government had "destroyed countries" in the Middle East. He said all parties needed to step away from paramilitaries.

During lively exchanges between the Alliance, Sinn Féin and DUP representatives, Sir Jeffrey produced a picture of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir standing alongside UDA leader Jackie McDonald before claiming Shankill bomber Sean Kelly was canvassing on behalf of the republican party.

The panelists were then asked how they would secure the best deal for the north post-Brexit.

Mr Eastwood and Mr O'Dowd argued for special EU status, while Robin Swann repeated his assertion that the Republic would be better seeking special status.

Sir Jeffrey said the UK would thrive outside the EU but Mrs Long said access to the single market and customs union needed to be maintained.

For a complete list of candidates standing in the general election on Thursday click here  

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