NI politicians clash on health, Stormont stability and Irish unity in TV debate

Northern Ireland politicians clashed on health service funding, the stability of Stormont and the merits of Irish unity in the second major TV debate of the General Election campaign.

The opening exchanges of the BBC NI debate focused on the recent controversy around the allocation to health in this year’s Stormont budget.

Senior representatives from Sinn Fein, the DUP, Alliance Party, Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP were asked a question from the audience on the budget allocation to the Department of Health.

The UUP, which holds the department, voted against the recent budget passed by the Assembly, arguing they will not implement cuts that would have a “catastrophic impact” on the health service.

All other main parties of the Executive – Sinn Fein, DUP and Alliance – backed the spending plan, with the main opposition party the SDLP opposing it.

The debate line-up comprised three party leaders – the DUP’s Gavin Robinson, Alliance’s Naomi Long and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood – while Sinn Fein was represented by its South Down candidate Chris Hazzard and the UUP by its deputy leader and Lagan Valley candidate Robbie Butler.

Mr Hazzard said there was a recognition from the UK government that Stormont had been underfunded and said the prospect of Labour entering into government meant “there’s an onus now on all MPs and Executive colleagues to make sure we get that better deal so we can invest in our health service”.

Mr Robinson said other departments also required additional funding, speculating what the impact might have been if all the money had been given to the health service.

“How many police officers were going to be made redundant, how many prisoners were going to be released, and how many special needs children were going to be left without the provision that they need?” he asked.

Ms Long said comparing the end of year figures to the start of the year and saying it showed a cut “isn’t fair”.

“It is correct to say that the closing budget of health last year looks like it’s been cut. But what we haven’t taken into account that during the year there are monitoring rounds where health will get further allocations,” she said.

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Mr Butler said health was the “number one topic on the doors” during the General Election campaign and said his party’s plan was “to work with our Executive partners to agree a budget”.

Mr Eastwood said that “there isn’t enough money in Stormont”.

“I know people in Derry who are going to the credit union to borrow money for simple procedures (privately),” he said.

“We need to go with one single voice and ask the British government to properly fund this health service because it absolutely has collapsed.”

Despite it being a debate on the General Election campaign, the opening of the debate focused on health, which is a devolved issue.

The programme followed the UTV debate on Sunday in which the fallout from Brexit, discord over calls for a united Ireland and Stormont’s perilous financial position dominated discussions.

The event was billed as a leaders’ debate and host Tara Mills pressed the Sinn Fein and UUP representatives on why their leaders had not accepted the invite to attend.

Mr Hazzard said Sinn Fein First Minister Michelle O’Neill was on the canvass trail while Mr Butler said UUP leader Doug Beattie had other diary commitments.

The debate shifted from health funding and reform to the issue of Stormont stability as the politicians were challenged on the fact that the devolved institutions have been in cold storage for five of the last seven years due to two long-term periods of collapse – one triggered by Sinn Fein, the other by the DUP.

The DUP was responsible for the last implosion as it blockaded the Executive and Assembly in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Mr Robinson justified the boycott, which the party ended in January, insisting progress to reduce the red tape on Irish Sea trade would “not have been made without our stance”.

“We would far rather not have had a government come down at all,” he said.

“We would far rather have had a situation where people would recognise that this place works properly and positively on the basis of consensus, and whenever unionism collectively in its entirety was indicating that the Northern Ireland Protocol (on post-Brexit trade) was fundamentally an imposition on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, and was not going to wash, that should have caused the body politic to sit back and say ‘actually, we have a problem here’.”

Ms Long said the DUP stance had no effect on the 2023 UK and EU Windsor Framework agreement to cut trading bureaucracy.

“It was not because of the collapse of the Assembly that we got progress in terms of these issues,” she said.

“And more than that, the collapse of the Assembly has damaged our public services, there’s no question that’s the case, ask the people who work in them.”

Ms Long then reiterated her call for Stormont reform to remove the capacity for the largest unionist and largest nationalist parties to pull it down.

When Mr Hazzard was asked whether he saw any circumstances where Sinn Fein would pull the Executive down again, he replied: “No, because at the end of the day, and again I reiterate, look at the strong positive leadership that Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little Pengelly (DUP deputy First Minister), to be fair to Emma Little Pengelly, and the other parties in the Executive so far (have shown).

“They have worked together collaboratively. This isn’t easy. Dealing with Tory austerity, it’s not easy. There’s a huge crisis in education and health. But now there’s a commitment to work together collaboratively to deliver.”

Mr Butler said the difference between the UUP and the DUP was his party was prepared to keep devolution working when its main rival walked away.

“All unionist politicians did agree in regards to the impact of Brexit, the protocol and the Windsor Framework, but the Ulster Unionist Party stood firm that they were not going to make the people of Northern Ireland suffer for political folly,” he said.

Mr Eastwood insisted the main parties would not give a guarantee that they would not collapse the institutions again.

“I think the first thing politicians around here tonight could do is all commit not to bring Stormont down again, but they won’t do it,” he said.

Asked by the audience about a united Ireland and the union, Ms Long said her party were about “the practicalities”.

“People are not waking up in the middle of the night in a lather of sweat worried about the border, but they are worried about are they going to be able to pay their bills.

“Will they get their children into good school? Are they going to be able to ensure that they can get an appointment for their doctor? Those are the things that worry people.”

Mr Eastwood said that Northern Ireland was “an economic basket case” and pointed to the billions in budgetary surpluses the Irish government has had in recent years – largely due to corporation tax paid by a handful of multinationals.

He said it was “easier to get money out of” the Dublin and London governments than from Stormont, and people in the Republic “are getting paid twice as much as they’re getting paid in the north”.

Mr Robinson said Mr Eastwood was “very good at talking things down” but said the NHS meant people did not pay fees for services such as doctors’ appointments.

Mr Butler said “the economic argument is obviously something that is very prevalent in some people’s minds at the moment”.

“I don’t think I could buy Colum, I don’t think I could buy Chris in terms of their aspirations to remain part of the UK but I will win it in terms of the hearts and minds argument.”

Mr Hazzard said that former Irish premier Leo Varadkar made “significant” comments recently when he said the Irish government need to ensure that reunification is “a political objective and not just an aspiration”.

The final topic was on the conflict in the Middle East, and to what extent it has become a “proxy war” in Northern Ireland.

Mr Eastwood said he would not travel as part of the annual St Patrick’s Day visit to Washington in protest against US support for Israel.

“I’m not going to go and drink pints of Guinness and eat nibbles with Joe Biden when he’s funding and arming the Israeli government to do that, that’s my position,” he said.

Mr Hazzard said Sinn Fein had made “a commitment” to the people of Palestine to “be their voice in those places”.

“No one is ever going to question Sinn Fein’s solidarity with the Palestinian people,” he said, to which Mr Eastwood interjected: “A lot of people are, actually.”

On the question of a proxy war, Ms Long said she was asked “a really probing question by a young woman in a school”.

“She said to me, ‘is it in some way letting my side down that I find what Israel are doing to the people in Gaza appalling, because everyone around me seems to think that Israel are fine’.

“Because we’ve turned into a proxy, as we do with almost every issue, for the Northern Ireland conflict and we should stop doing that.”

Mr Robinson said it was not “taking sides to condemn terrorism”, adding that he views “very clearly that what is going on at the moment as a human tragedy”.

Mr Butler said “it doesn’t matter if it’s an Israeli child or a Palestinian child who loses their life” and that “there has to be dialogue”.