Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill exchange angry words in election TV debate

Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill exchange angry words in election TV debate

Northern Ireland’s political leaders have traded angry words in the last televised debate of the Assembly election campaign.

Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill accused the other of showing disrespect as they clashed on disputes at the heart of the region’s current political crisis.

While the erstwhile lead partners in government exchanged brickbats on the live BBC debate, the leaders of the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance Party - Mike Nesbitt, Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long - insisted they were better placed to make powersharing work.

The opening exchanges focused on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - a botched green energy scheme that has left Stormont facing a potential overspend of almost £500 million.

Sinn Fein has claimed the DUP’s handling of the affair was the reason they pulled the institutions down in January. But the DUP claim the republican party is using the issue as an excuse to press their own united Ireland agenda.

During one tense encounter before a vocal studio audience, Mrs Foster reacted strongly when Mrs O’Neill interjected.

"What about a bit of respect, Michelle?" she said.

Mrs O’Neill responded: "What about some respect for the public, Arlene."

The DUP leader and former first minister said the furore around the RHI had centred on "smears and allegations" but was "devoid of facts".

"The RHI has been the excuse but not the cause of this election," she said.

"The cause of this election is the wish of Sinn Fein to implement their radical agenda on Northern Ireland."

Mrs O’Neill claimed the DUP leader was in denial.

"I don’t know where Arlene has been living for the last number of months - this election is very clearly about ’cash for ash’, the RHI scandal potentially seeing the drip-feed of potentially £500 million out of the block grant," she said.

"Arlene couldn’t even be humble to admit a mistake."

Mr Nesbitt said the RHI was an example of the type of bad government he claimed characterised the DUP and Sinn Fein’s decade in power.

"We need an end to 10 years of government hallmarked by incompetence, arrogance, cronyism and the strong whiff of corruption - it is time for change," he said.

Mr Eastwood echoed the call for a clean out at Stormont Castle.

"Arlene doesn’t seem to have learned any lessons - it’s a disgrace we have got to this situation," he said.

Mrs Long said the election had turned into a "sham fight" between unionism and nationalism.

"What we need to learn from this is the need to elect people who can deliver good government," she said.

The debate also explored the issue of vote transferring and whether the snap poll would see more willingness among unionists and nationalists to give second preference votes to the other’s political representatives.

Mr Nesbitt’s pledge to transfer his personal vote to the SDLP has brought the issue to the forefront of the campaign.

Mrs Foster has insisted any such transfer would undermine unionism and further advance Sinn Fein’s agenda.

During Tuesday night’s debate, the UUP leader said he stood by his remarks.

"Leadership involves leading and I am leading," he said.

Mr Eastwood accused the DUP of pushing the politics of fear.

"These scare tactics are what people are so fed up about," he said.

Mrs Long added: "They have nothing else to offer than fear."

The five leaders also clashed on the prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster and the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

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