The lively discussion saw some spiky exchanges on these issues and others including Sinn Féin’s Westminster abstentionist policy and how to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly after the votes are counted early on Friday morning.
Four of the five main party leaders participated – Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin, the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood, Robin Swann of the Ulster Unionist Party and Naomi Long of Alliance – while the DUP was represented by its deputy leader and North Belfast candidate, Nigel Dodds, rather than its leader Arlene Foster.
During the debate, hosted by Marc Mallet, none of the leaders did or said anything that should have a radical bearing on the last few days of campaigning for the North’s 18 single seat constituencies.
The recording of the programme on Monday afternoon was briefly interrupted after Ms Long became faint early into the debate. She said afterwards that the heat in the studio together with her sadness at the unexpected death of Alliance Belfast councillor Mervyn Jones last week had left her feeling weak.
“I felt it was better to sit down than fall down,” she said. Ms Long quickly recovered and the programme continued.
Discussion of the attacks in London and Manchester quickly led to references to IRA and loyalist violence. This was prompted by Mr Swann welcoming Ms O’Neill’s comments deploring the attacks but wishing republicans had done the same for “previous bombs”, a clear reference to the IRA.
Ms O’Neill responded it was unfortunate that other political leaders tried to “score political points” over the Manchester and London attacks, which she described as “atrocious and horrendous”. However, she said these were “two different issues” and comparisons should not be drawn with “the conflict in Ireland”.
Both Ms O’Neill and Ms Long referred to how the Ulster Political Research Group (political advisors to the UDA whose members were recently involved in two murders), had endorsed DUP candidate Emma Little Pengelly in South Belfast.
Mr Dodds countered by criticising Ms O’Neill for recently attending a commemoration for the eight members of the IRA who were killed by the SAS in Loughgall, Co Armagh in 1987. He said he and the DUP were unequivocal in condemning violence while Ms O’Neill attended an event “eulogising IRA murderers”.
Ms O’Neill called for an “informed healthy debate” on a united Ireland while Mr Dodds said those who urged a Border poll “wanted to create more uncertainty and instability”.
Ms Long said a Border poll would be a “divisive action” which would “split our population”. Mr Swann said there was no evidence a Border poll could be carried, which was required for such a referendum.
SDLP leader Mr Eastwood raised the subject of Sinn Féin abstentionism from Westminster a number of times and said Sinn Féin wanted people “to vote for them on Thursday but they won’t go and vote for you” in Westminster on Brexit.
The Sinn Féin leader said the solution to Brexit was special designated status for Northern Ireland within the EU. She said the parties who did sit in the House of Commons had failed to stop both Brexit and “Tory cuts” while Sinn Féin provided all-Ireland representation. Mr Dodds said Sinn Féin had stolen the special status proposal from the SDLP.
All five politicians said they wanted Stormont to be restored but none could definitively say when that might happen following the negotiations that are to begin after Thursday’s election.