Northern Ireland

Heated exchanges at final NI leaders debate

The leaders of the five main local parties have made their final pitches for votes in a BBC Northern Ireland TV election special.

There were heated exchanges over the conduct of the Stormont Executive.

The Sinn Fein and DUP leaders accused the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party of not being team players.

SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie and head of the UUP Tom Elliott responded by criticising a "cosy consensus" between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Ms Ritchie at one point accused the Alliance leader David Ford of being a "lapdog" for the two biggest parties.

The debate ranged across the economy, education, health, water charges and security matters.

DUP leader Peter Robionson defended his party's decision to rule out both additional water charges and an increase in tuition fees.

He said the DUP was a "low tax party" and it was not justified to ask people to pay more when there were savings the government could make.

However, David Ford, whose Alliance party has backed water charges, said people wanted honesty about the public finances.

Asked whether the other parties were not being honest, Mr Ford said that after the election the others would "make so many U-turns it would be dangerous to cross the road".

'Contradiction'

Martin McGuinness refused to accept there was a contradiction between Sinn Fein's past support of the IRA and its current condemnation of dissident attacks.

Mr McGuinness insisted that he "did not want to live in the past, but in the here and now".

Asked whether he would serve under Mr McGuinness as First Minister, the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott pledged that he would never serve under Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein aimed criticism at the Ulster Unionists.

Peter Robinson referred to "Ulster Unionist Conservative cuts" to the Stormont budget, whilst Martin McGuinness refused to withdraw his comment that Michael McGimpsey's decision not to proceed with the Altnagelvin radiotherapy centre had been "sectarian".

During a discussion on jobs creation, Martin McGuinness broadened his assault, arguing that "if Peter Robinson and I can work together it is not too much to expect Tom Elliott and Margaret Ritchie to work with us".

The fault lines between the parties were clearly on display as Ms Ritchie claimed the Deputy First Minister was talking "absolute rubbish" adding that "Marty had a case of Peteritis".

At one point the presenter suggested that Martin McGuinness sounded as if he was encouraging Sinn Fein voters to transfer to the DUP rather than the SDLP. Mr McGuinness said they could vote for whoever they wished.

'Fools'

Image caption The leaders clashed on issues ranging from the economy and education

The Alliance leader David Ford claimed that both the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP had made "fools of themselves" by voting against the budget yet remaining in the Executive.

As the future of the Justice department was discussed, the SDLP leader retorted that Mr Ford was "a little lapdog for the DUP" and "a puppet to the DUP and Sinn Fein".

On education, Martin McGuinness refused to apologise for Caitriona Ruane's handling of academic selection. He insisted that the minister's critics were annoyed because she is a woman, who comes from Mayo and is an Irish speaker.

Tom Elliott called for a two year moratorium during which selection would continue to take place whilst a cross party agreement is sought. Peter Robinson said he is becoming more attracted to the idea of computer adaptive testing.

During the programme the leaders took questions from the audience and the debate ended with each politician making a final direct appeal to voters to back their party.