BBC debate: Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on the defensive as NI election rivals hit out over protocol



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There were heated exchanges over the Northern Ireland Protocol during the final televised leaders’ debate ahead of Assembly poll.

etting out their stall for the final time before ballots are cast were DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill, Alliance Party chief Naomi Long, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie.

The BBC debate was moderated by Jim Fitzpatrick, and began straight away with questions from the audience. There were no opening statements from the party leaders.

It came hours after a poll was released showing Sinn Fein still in front in the race, but also a surge for Alliance, with support for the party increasing from 14.6% to 18.2% — tying it for second place with the DUP.

The first question from the audience was on whether the leaders would turn up ready to form an Executive on day one following the election, and if they did not, would they still accept their pay? Sir Jeffrey said he would be committed to turn up but concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol needed to be addressed first, while Michelle O’Neill said it would be “absolutely unfathomable” that a new Executive would not be formed following the election.

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Mr Beattie said he wanted to see a programme for government agreed before a new Executive was formed, and Ms Long said it would be “obscene” for MLAs to continue to take their salaries at a time when they would not be doing their jobs.

On the question of whether Sinn Fein would call a border poll after the election, Ms O’Neill said the “conversation has already started” but refused to give a preferred date for a vote. 

The UUP leader said a border poll was “not even close” and accused the DUP of “scare tactics” over the issue.

Regarding the growing cost-of-living crisis, Mr Eastwood said the SDLP would put £200 in everyone’s pocket, while Ms O’Neill said her party would push for a £230 payment for each household.

 

When the topic of the protocol came up again, there were some fiery exchanges, with Sir Jeffrey criticised by other leaders for his party’s stance.

Mr Eastwood accused the DUP chief of waiting on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “ride over the hill and save him”.

He added: “We can talk about the cost of living and we can talk about health, [but] nothing will be done about any of these issues if we don’t have a government.”

An audience member questioned how any “self-respecting” politician could support a protocol that has imposed conditions on Northern Ireland “which meet the United Nations’ definition of a non-self-governing territory”.

Sir Jeffrey was also questioned about sea border infrastructure implemented while party colleague Edwin Poots was the minister in charge. 

The DUP leader said Westminster put this infrastructure in place, not Mr Poots, and insisted it was “temporary”.

Ms O’Neill accused the DUP of pushing for the “hardest possible version of Brexit” and said her party was trying to find ways of making the protocol work.

On soaring prices faced by households, Sir Jeffrey said the protocol was “driving up the cost of living in Northern Ireland”. 

The DUP leader cited several figures to back up his argument, but these numbers were challenged as to whether they were really down to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Ms Long said Sir Jeffrey’s evidence needed “fact-checked” and blamed the DUP for collapsing the Executive, claiming it meant action could not be taken to address the crisis.

Sir Jeffrey said Mr Beattie “does not recognise” the threat the protocol posed to the Union.

Ms O’Neill said the majority of people had voted against the Brexit, while Ms Long said leaving the EU had caused division, just as a border poll would. 

Sir Jeffrey accused Mr Eastwood of ignoring unionist concerns over the protocol, while UUP leader Mr Beattie said the DUP had squandered the chance to block the protocol.

The DUP leader hit back, saying his party had voted against it.

Mr Beattie replied that the DUP had not blocked anything, explaining: “If you did, we wouldn’t be here.”

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