Northern Ireland Election 2016

NI Assembly election: Figures from main parties take part in UTV debate

The leaders of the five main parties taking part in the UTV Election Debate Image copyright Matt Mackey/Press Eye
Image caption The UTV Election Debate was the first televised debate of the campaign

Senior figures from the five main parties have taken part in the first televised debate of the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness were at Belfast's Lyric Theatre for the UTV Election Debate.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, Social Democratic & Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood and David Ford, the Alliance leader, also took part.

Voters will go to the polls on 5 May.

For Mrs Foster and Mr Eastwood, the debate was their first as the leaders of their parties.

Dickensian

Mrs Foster got off to a nervous start, stumbling in her opening statement, but appeared more confident when she and Mr Nesbitt differed on the issue of abortion.

Moves to change Northern Ireland's abortion law were blocked in the last assembly term.

Mr Nesbitt said: "We should change the law when it comes to fatal foetal abnormalities and sex crimes and what we did in the last term was Dickensian, it was like Bleak House."

But Mrs Foster responded by saying that "more of Mike's party voted with me on the last couple of occasions than voted with him".

"So, I speak more for the Ulster Unionists than the leader of the Ulster Unionists," she added.

Selection

The debate then turned to education, with Mr Eastwood and Mr McGuinness clashing on the 11-plus examination.

Mr Eastwood claimed that Mr McGuinness had failed to abolish the transfer test.

Image copyright UTV
Image caption Northern Ireland's five main parties were represented in the debate

"We have young children, [aged] 10 and 11, doing four or five exams outside their primary school," he said.

"That system is still there and I want to see that system gone."

But Mr McGuinness said the 11-plus was a government exam.

"The examinations that are taking place at the moment are under the tutelage of grammar schools, not the government," he said.

"The government does not impose selection on children at the age of 10 and 11."

Resources

Mr Ford said integrated education needed greater support.

"A very large number of parents want to see their children educated in integrated schools," he said.

"[Integrated education] is also one way of avoiding the waste of money which is currently going with something like 70,000 empty desks and half-empty school buildings.

"We could actually put the resources of education into educating children rather than cleaning floors and keeping slates on roofs."

Matters then moved on to health and the economy.

Jokingly

The debate ended on a light-hearted note, with the participants asked which actor should play them in a film.

Mr Nesbitt went for Liz Hurley, while Mr McGuinness chose Colm Meaney, the Irish actor who will play him in the forthcoming dramatic comedy The Journey.

Arlene Foster jokingly chose US star Demi Moore.

And with their tongues firmly in their cheeks, Mr Ford chose Liam Neeson and Mr Eastwood went for Jamie Dornan.

The next leaders' debate of the election campaign will be on BBC Northern Ireland next month.