Naomi Long ‘fine’ after TV debate halted when she felt faint

The UTV leaders' debate
The UTV leaders' debate

The recording of the UTV leaders’ debate tonight had to be halted in unusual circumstances after Alliance leader Naomi Long became unwell, before being able to resume and be broadcast.

The hour-long debate – which had been postponed from almost a fortnight ago due to the Manchester terrorists attack – was split into three segments between breaks for advertisements.

Just after the first break, Mrs Long was speaking fluently about Brexit when she suddenly stopped and appeared to be breathless. After several moments of silence, presenter Marc Mallett halted recording and rushed over to Mrs Long. After a break of about five minutes, recording resumed and Mrs Long participated fully in the remainder of the debate.

The segment was not broadcast tonight but journalists were present for the recording.

Speaking to reporters after the debate, the former East Belfast MP – who is hoping to re-take the seat which she lost to the DUP’s Gavin Robinson – said: “Obviously Mervyn [Alliance councillor Mervyn Jones] died very suddenly on Thursday night and I’ve been dealing with a lot of the follow-up to that and the funeral and stuff.”

Mrs Long said that the studio had been very hot “and I just felt faint” but that after sitting down and getting some water she was fine, adding: “I thought it was better to sit down than fall down...I’m feeling grand now.”

In the debate itself, there was little new to emerge as the leaders largely repeated well-rehearsed positions around the collapse of devolution and Brexit.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood repeatedly reminded viewers that Sinn Fein’s abstentionism means that the party’s MPs will not take their seats in Westminster.

He said of Sinn Fein: “They want you to vote for them on Thursday. But they won’t go to vote for you [in the Commons],” adding: “If Sinn Fein get their way, we won’t have one anti-Brexit voice [in the Commons]; we won’t have one nationalist either.”

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds picked up that theme, highlighting that every Sinn Fein MP elected was likely to increase the effective majority of the Tories.

But Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill attempted to brush off the attacks, claiming that Northern Ireland’s MPs had failed to make any impact in the Commons and were going there to speak to a largely empty chamber.

Later, a largely staid debate came to life as Ms O’Neill said she was “progressive”, only for an agitated Mr Dodds to thrice interject and say: “Well stop eulogising terrorists then”.

On Brexit, Mr Dodds said that the SDLP and Sinn Fein, who were decrying the “uncertainty” of Brexit, were also calling for a border poll, something which he said would be highly destabilising.

All of the parties insisted that they wanted to see devolution restored, but there was little indication of the compromise between the DUP and Sinn Fein necessary to secure that outcome.

Mrs Long accused the DUP of having shown “disrespect” to the entire Assembly by its actions during the last mandate, while UUP leader Robin Swann said he was optimistic that devolution could be restored but was concerned about the potential for politics in NI “going into an abyss”.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) night the final TV debate, hosted by Noel Thompson in front of a live studio audience, will go out at 9pm on BBC One NI.