Sinn Fein and DUP politicians have clashed in a televised debate over claims of paramilitary influence in the election campaign.
There were acrimonious scenes after Sir Jeffrey Donaldson claimed that republican Sean Kelly, who was convicted of murdering nine people in the IRA’s 1993 Shankill Road bomb, has been canvassing for Sinn Fein.
DUP candidate Sir Jeffrey was responding to a claim by Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd that the DUP and UDA were jointly attempting to dominate the political scene in Northern Ireland.
Mr O’Dowd was commenting on the endorsement of a number of unionist candidates by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella group representing the three main loyalist paramilitary groups in the region.
“The DUP use the UDA for elections, the UDA use the DUP in government,” said Mr O’Dowd.
During the live BBC One Northern Ireland election debate, Sir Jeffrey denied the accusation, insisting his party rejected the backing of the LCC.
He then produced a picture of Sinn Fein candidate Mairtin O Muilleoir standing with UDA leader Jackie McDonald.
The DUP man added: “Sean Kelly the Shankill bomber who was responsible for the murder of nine innocent people on the Shankill Road is out campaigning for Sinn Fein in this election. Can you imagine Sean Kelly the Shankill bomber arriving on your doorstep?”
Mr O’Dowd responded: “Sean Kelly is out canvassing to promote politics and the peace process.”
The two main televised leaders’ debates of the Northern Ireland campaign were broadcast on successive evenings, with Monday night’s Ulster Television encounter having been postponed due to the Manchester terror outrage.
The BBC clash focused on Brexit, the challenge posed by radicalisation and the constitutional question.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood repeatedly rounded on Sinn Fein for its abstentionist policy at Westminster.
“Their vote will be like a proxy vote for the Conservatives because they won’t turn up,” he said.
“If we have another Conservative government we are going to see more and more squeeze on the health and education budget.”
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the main problem was the ongoing failure to form a devolved executive at Stormont.
“The important thing is to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and working again because that’s where we get the problems solved and that’s where we need the answers,” he said.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said the election would be a “wasted opportunity” if it was viewed as a referendum on the union.
“This is fed by lazy politicians, not by the public,” she said.
“The thing that is keeping voters awake at night is not the border question, it’s the fact they can’t get an appointment to see their GP, it’s the fact the waiting lists in hospitals are longer than they used to be, it’s the fact they can’t make ends meet.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital