Northern Ireland’s political leaders clash in TV debate ahead of Assembly elections

Donaldson reiterates he will not form Executive until NI protocol concerns are dealt with

Northern Ireland’s political party leaders have clashed just days away from fresh Assembly elections, during a BBC debate ahead of the vote.

Challenged to say whether his party will form an Executive or refuse to accept their salaries if re-elected, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his position that he would not form an Executive until concerns in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol were dealt with.

He said the political institutions “must be sustainable”.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said it would be “absolutely unfathomable” to tell the electorate that a new Executive would not be formed following the election.

She also said she still had not heard if unionist leaders would "accept the democratic outcome of the election", in a seeming reference to opinion polls which suggest Sinn Féin will become the biggest party at Stormont and entitled to nominate a first minister for the first time.

Mr Donaldson has not yet said if he would nominate a deputy first minister to serve along with a Sinn Féin first minister in the joint office.

Ms O’Neill accused the DUP of “holding us all to ransom” over its position on refusing to go back into an Executive without action on the Northern Ireland protocol.

The leaders of the North’s five largest parties took part in the live debate on BBC One Northern Ireland on Tuesday evening ahead of polling day on Thursday.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that while they can talk about the cost-of-living crisis and the health services, "nothing will be done about any of these issues if we don't have a government".

He said government in Northern Ireland could not be stopped because the UK government and the European Commission have not reached an agreement over the protocol, a part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement guaranteeing a special post-Brexit trading status for Northern Ireland.

UUP leader Doug Beattie said he wanted to see a programme for government agreed before a new Executive was formed.

“If you agree the programme for government first, its outcomes, what the budget is going to be . . . I think that’s an important way for us to travel,” he said.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she would be in Stormont ready to form an Executive if she was returned by the electorate.

She urged that MLAs were “not locked out”, adding that she did not want the “embarrassment” of being paid her full salary as an MLA while the Assembly is not fully functioning.

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

Results are expected to become known from Friday following the counting of the votes. – PA

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