Stormont impasse and Brexit dominate UTV election debate

Politicians from Northern Ireland’s five main parties have gone head-to-head on issues like the crisis facing the health service in UTV’s election debate.

However, the lack of a functional devolved government at Stormont and the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit dominated proceedings.

Taking part in Sunday’s debate, filmed on location at the Queen's Film Theatre Studio and moderated by UTV’s Marc Mallett, were SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, UUP leader Steve Aiken, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly, and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long.

Each politician was given a maximum of 45 seconds in which to deliver an opening statement, before it was down to business.

  • VIDEO: Opening statements from the five parties

The first hot topic on the agenda was health, against the backdrop of hospital waiting times in Northern Ireland being the worst in the UK and workers pushed to take industrial action.

There can be no doubting the situation has reached crisis point, but who is to blame and, more importantly, what can be done to fix the health service?

The DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly defended the decision of Jim Wells, as then DUP Health Minister, to end pay parity between healthcare workers in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“We were suffering at that time under a very difficult budget,” she said.

“The DUP opposed austerity – that time is over, we need to get spending, and that’s what we’re pushing the UK Government to do.”

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, a former Health Minister herself, denied a suggestion that ending pay parity was an Executive-led decision and claimed Mr Wells had taken an individual decision.

Adding that she did not want to play politics with the issue, she said: “I was a health minister that brought forward a plan to transform the health service, because if we don’t transform how we deliver care, we’re always going to be facing this crisis.”

Michelle O'Neill, Emma Little-Pengelly, and Naomi Long take part in the UTV election debate. Credit: Presseye

The SDLP’s Colum Eastwood called for politics to be taken out of health.

“What happens always is that one minister gets the health department and then everybody else gangs up on them and blames them for all the problems,” he said.

“We all need to agree to take the politics out of health and get on with taking tough decisions.”

  • VIDEO: Can politics be taken out of the health issue?

Steve Aiken’s UUP wants to declare a national emergency to address the crisis.

“The last time there was a UUP health minister, the waiting lists were 16,000,” he said.

“The waiting lists now are close on 308,000 – how is that not an emergency?”

Alliance’s Naomi Long acknowledged that there was no “silver bullet or magic wand” to fix the health service, but added that taking action instead of treading water for so long would have helped.

“It isn’t just about short-term action to deal with waiting lists,” she said.

“It’s also to do with recruitment and retention, and to do with transformation of how we deliver a health service – not just a sickness service.”

The UTV election debate comes just days ahead of voters going to the polls. Credit: Presseye

Brexit has, of course, dominated the election landscape in many ways and influenced thinking on many other topics on the agenda.

Tackling it in its own right brought some of the most heated exchanges of the debate - and the DUP, given its confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives, came under fire from the UUP.

Emma Little-Pengelly said her party had stood up for Northern Ireland and that it had “stopped a bad Theresa May deal, stopped a bad Boris deal”.

Steve Aiken took issue with that, insisting that the prospect of a border down the Irish Sea had “happened on the DUP’s watch”.

  • VIDEO: The DUP and UUP clash over Brexit

When it came to making a difference in the workings of Brexit and the impact on Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin also had to address their abstentionist policy at Westminster.

“We used our influence where it matters,” Michelle O’Neill said.

“We have delivered outside the Westminster system because our interests will never be served there and the last couple of years is all the evidence anybody ever needs to be able to prove that.”

  • VIDEO: Michelle O'Neill defends Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy

While this may be a Westminster election, the lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive was never far from minds.

Stormont talks are due to resume just days after voters go to the polls to elect MPs.

Each of the politicians expressed a desire on behalf of their party to see devolution restored, but how that will translate around the talks table will remain to be seen.

  • Naomi Long on getting Stormont back to business

Having watched from the wings during the debate, UTV Political Editor Ken Reid said it showed just what a difficult election this is for the parties.

He added that there were signs all of the politicians did want to get Stormont working again.

Ken also noted that none of those taking part would consider themselves to have dropped the ball - and that one or two may have “gained some bonus points”.

  • VIDEO: UTV Political Editor Ken Reid gives his debate analysis

Have your say on the UTV election debate, by voting in our poll on which of the politicians performed best.

  • CATCH-UP: Watch the UTV Election Debate in full

  • Find the full list of General Election 2019 candidates here