NI political leaders clash days before Stormont election

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Northern Ireland’s political leaders clashed days before new Stormont Assembly elections.

Challenged to say whether they will form an executive or refuse to accept their salaries if re-elected, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his stance that he will stand on the first day after the election, but will not form an executive until concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed.

He said that political institutions “must be durable”.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Naomi Long, Michelle O’Neill, Doug Beattie and Colum Eastwood (William Cherry/Presseye/PA)

Sinn Fein deputy chair Michelle O’Neill said it would be ‘absolutely unfathomable’ to tell the electorate that a new executive would not be formed after the election.

She also said she had still not heard whether Unionist leaders would ‘accept the democratic outcome of the election’, in an apparent reference to opinion polls which suggest Sinn Fein will become Stormont’s biggest party. and will have the right to appoint a prime minister.

Sir Jeffrey did not say whether he would appoint a deputy first minister to serve with a Sinn Fein first minister in the joint office.

Ms O’Neill accused the DUP of ‘holding us all hostage’ for its stance of refusing to return to an executive without action on Northern Ireland protocol.

The resignation of Prime Minister Paul Givan in February prevented the executive from fully functioning.

“While the rest of us want to put money in people’s pockets and deal with the cost of living crisis, the DUP is telling people their identity is under threat,” Ms O’Neill said. .

Sir Jeffrey responded, pointing to the resignation of former Deputy Prime Minister Martin McGuinness which saw the Assembly collapse for three years.
He said ministers were continuing in their posts, while Ms O’Neill hit back saying they were ‘interim ministers’.

Leaders of the five biggest parties took part in a live debate on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday evening ahead of Election Day on Thursday.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that while they could talk about the cost of living and healthcare crisis, “nothing will be done about these issues if we don’t have a government”.

He said the Northern Ireland government could not be stopped because the UK government and the European Commission had failed to reach an agreement on the protocol.

UUP leader Doug Beattie said he wanted to see an agenda for the government agreed before a new executive is formed.

“If you first accept the program for the government, its results, what the budget will be… I think it’s an important way for us to travel,” he said.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she would also be in Stormont ready to form an executive if elected by the electorate.

She insisted that MPs were ‘not locked out’, adding that she did not want the ’embarrassment’ of receiving her full MP salary when the Assembly was not fully functioning.

Asked about a border poll, Sir Jeffrey said he did not want it, saying it would be divisive.

Ms O’Neill said she was ‘not set’ on a date for a future Borders poll, describing the cost of living crisis as the big deal right now.

Mr Eastwood said the lack of government in Stormont was the issue today, not a border ballot, while Ms Long said her party would not call for a border ballot and instead focus on the government.

Mr Beattie insisted a border ballot was not imminent and claimed the DUP was using the prospect of a border ballot as a ‘scare tactic’.

Voters will head to the polls on Thursday to elect 90 MPs for 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland.

The results should be known from Friday after the counting of the votes.

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