Assailed from every side, Foster turns on BBC audience during final debate

Last night's BBC leaders' debate.  Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Last night's BBC leaders' debate. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Arlene Foster found herself at the centre of the action last night in a fiery final major act of the campaign ahead of tomorrow’s snap election.

The DUP leader’s podium was literally in the middle between the four other major party leaders during the BBC debate and the former First Minister found herself under relentless questioning from every one of the other leaders, as well as from several audience members.

Mrs Foster’s irritation with the audience boiled over in the final minutes of the debate when she sarcastically said to veteran presenter Noel Thompson, who was chairing proceedings: “I can see that we’ve a very balanced audience in tonight”, to which many in the studio audience responded with boos.

The debate also saw another significant statement from UUP leader Mike Nesbitt who followed his earlier campaign revelation that he will transfer to the SDLP ahead of other unionists by saying that he will also transfer to Alliance’s Naomi Long.

Responding to a question from a man in the audience, Mr Nesbitt paused before saying: “I have no doubt I will [be voting for her]”.

That statement comes less than two years after Mr Nesbitt joined the DUP in an electoral pact to unseat Mrs Long as MP for East Belfast.

The debate also saw a bizarre question posed by Sinn Fein’s new leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, towards SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

Mr Eastwood - who performed strongly during the hour-long debate - was setting out his party’s desire to see devolution continue so that direct rule could be avoided.

He said that in order to do that his party was “not putting down any red lines” for talks on forming an Executive after the election.

Ms O’Neill replied: “Is a united Ireland a red line for you if you go into government with the Ulster Unionist Party?”

The debate began by focusing on the RHI scandal, with each party posing questions to Mrs Foster over her role in the setting up of the disastrous scheme.

The DUP leader sought not to comment in detail on the situation, saying that it was a matter now for the public inquiry.

However, under continued questioning she said claimed that all there had been were “political smears” about the ‘cash for ash’ scheme but that coverage had been “devoid of facts”.

Ms O’Neill claimed that the DUP had left Sinn Fein in the dark about the situation but Mrs Foster highlighted that Sinn Fein has known about the financial catastrophe for more than a year, yet did not collapse Stormont in that time.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that MLAs were “lied to in the chamber” about the RHI scheme because as it was closed they were told that it had been a huge success when in fact the DUP and Sinn Fein knew that it was calamitous.

And, pressed on why she didn’t stand aside, Mrs Foster said: “I wouldn’t stand aside for a public inquiry because it was a Sinn Fein demand”, arguing that there should have been an inquiry first and then an election so that voters could have all the facts before polling day.

Mrs Foster reminded Mr Nesbitt that many in the UUP had backed Brexit - despite his pro-EU stance - and said that the DUP’s position on the EU had been consistent for four decades.

She said that unlike Sinn Fein the DUP’s eight MPs would work at Westminster to represent Northern Ireland’s interests during the negotiations about what form a post-Brexit UK takes.

At one point, Mrs Foster said that it would be “dangerous” to transfer to the SDLP and said that she was “a unionist first and foremost”.

During one of several testy exchanges, Mike Nesbitt dismissed Mrs Foster’s call for people to vote DUP in case Sinn Fein overtake them as the largest unionist party. Mr Nesbitt said: “People voted for you last time and they got Martin McGuinness - and he wrote your resignation letter”,

After cheers from the audience for Mr Nesbitt’s comment, Mrs Foster retorted that the electorate had voted for her and got “a strong unionist leader”.

Mr Nesbitt insisted that the UUP liked his comment about voting for the SDLP, despite numerous senior UUP figures publicly stating that they will instead be voting for unionists ahead of the SDLP.