Anti-climactic debate ends low-key election campaign

John O'Dowd (Sinn Fein); Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP);  Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Robin Swann (UUP) and Naomi Long (Alliance). Photo by William Cherry
John O'Dowd (Sinn Fein); Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP); Colum Eastwood (SDLP); Robin Swann (UUP) and Naomi Long (Alliance). Photo by William Cherry

A sometimes heated but fundamentally anti-climactic leaders’ debate last night effectively brought to a close what has been a brief and low-key general election campaign in Northern Ireland.

Last night’s televised BBC debate involved just three of the five local leaders, with stand-ins representing the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The DUP had been planning to be represented by its Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, but, due to his mother taking ill he was unable to attend.

Leader Arlene Foster was heading to Belgium for the Battle of Messines commemorations, so at lunch time yesterday Lagan Valley candidate Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that he would be representing the party.

By mid-afternoon, it emerged that Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill, was also pulling out of the debate.

It is understood that she has the flu and last night the BBC’s Noel Thompson said that the BBC had been told that she had lost her voice.

A considerable portion of last night’s debate – particularly between the SDLP and Sinn Fein – involved debate about Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy,

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that voting for Sinn Fein “will be like a proxy vote for the Tories because they won’t turn up” in the House of Commons.

Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd retorted of the SDLP: “Their attendance rate [in the Commons] is nearly as bad as our own.”

The SDLP leader came back, referring to “millions of pounds in expenses” which Sinn Fein had “no problem taking” from Westminster.

Later, in the line of the night, Mr Eastwood questioned Sinn Fein’s influence in the EU Parliament by saying that the party “sits in a fringe group...with the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia”.

As Mr O’Dowd protested, Mr Eastwood provoked laughter from fellow panellists and the audience when he said: “You sit with a bunch of communists”.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann also weighed in on the issue, saying: “We need 18 MPs who will take their seats, who will argue for Northern Ireland,” particularly in the context of Brexit.

Mr Swann said that he was presenting a “positive and progressive unionism”, adding: “There’s a unionism that shouldn’t be seen as orange and green ... there’s a revitalisation across the UK because of Brexit”.

Alliance leader Naomi Long claimed that the government “is heading for a hard Brexit and is being aided and abetted every step of the way by the DUP” but that “a wise prime minister would take a softer approach to Brexit which might bring people together”.

And, after a clash with Sir Jeffrey, Mrs Long said: “You’ve seen tonight why it’s so hard to get an executive restored when the DUP don’t want to listen”.

Asked if he would unequivocally divorce the DUP from the Loyalist Communities’ Council’s endorsement of the party, Sir Jeffrey said: “Yes”.

Mr O’Dowd alleged that “the DUP use the UDA during elections and the UDA use the DUP in government”, something which Sir Jeffrey dismissed as “nonsense”.

Sir Jeffrey said that it would be today reported that the Shankill Bomber Sean Kelly was canvassing for Sinn Fein in this election.