Page last updated at 08:58 GMT, Wednesday, 5 May 2010 09:58 UK

Northern Ireland leaders debate

Questions were put forward on the economy, dissident threats and MP expenses

On Tuesday night the second televised debate between the leaders of the four largest parties in Northern Ireland took place.

BBC Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport watched the leaders debate unfold on BBC1.

Some of the issues at stake in Northern Ireland's final leaders' debate have become familiar throughout the Westminster campaign - unionists disagreeing on the best strategy to handle a hung parliament, nationalists at loggerheads over abstentionism and electoral pacts, and all the parties debating how to navigate the economy out of the current hard times.

But some of the most trenchant exchanges focussed on a topic which for much of this campaign has taken an uncharacteristic back seat - security.

Although the politicians spent the start of the year burning the midnight oil inside Hillsborough Castle trying to resolve how and when to devolve justice, the matter hasn't been high on the election agenda.

In general, it's been thought to be a weak spot for the Conservatives and Unionists as the Conservatives backed the move, whilst the Ulster Unionists opposed it.

But during the debate, Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey tried to turn this opposition to his party's advantage, linking it to the continuing dissident republican threat.

Sir Reg challenged Gerry Adams to support the chief constable if he decides he needs to bring the Army in to combat the dissidents.

The Sinn Fein president said no, accusing the Ulster Unionists of playing into the dissidents' hands.

The SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie followed suit, ruling out Army involvement under any circumstances.

Sir Reg countered by pointing out that he had resisted pressure from presidents and prime ministers on backing the transfer of justice powers, because he worried that the politicians had not sorted out such questions in advance.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson argued that the exchanges were based on a false premise, because the chief constable had operational independence and would be the only one to make the decision.

Nevertheless the exchanges on the role of the Army were some of the feistiest of the debate.

Expenses

Gerry Adams was the only politician to use a visual aid, waving around part of former SDLP MP Eddie McGrady's expenses bill as the leaders discussed the Westminster expenses scandal.

The SDLP leader retorted with reference to Sinn Fein's inflated rentals for London properties.

The SDLP later said in a statement that contrary to Mr Adams' claims, Mr McGrady had never claimed for the cutting of grass or hedges as part of his Westminster allowance.

The claim referred to by Mr Adams related to the repair and maintenance of his constituency office and compliance with health and safety regulations.

In the debate, the Ulster Unionist leader called the issue of trust "the elephant in the room" but some of the discussions on this score did not get as personal as in the first local leaders' debate.

Peter Robinson defended his employment of family members pointing out that during the Troubles others were not flocking to work for unionist politicians for security reasons.

There weren't any clear knock-out blows.

Gerry Adams looked assured, Margaret Ritchie had improved on her rather nervous first debate performance.

On the unionist side, Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey are familiar figures who revisited their familiar debate about the merits of joining or remaining outside a future government.

Maybe because there are fewer floating voters in Northern Ireland, it's hard to imagine the local debates having the same seismic impact on the campaign as those in Great Britain.

However, the times are changing and so are the issues, so the local parties know it would be foolish to take the voters for granted.

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