Sharp exchanges between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and DUP leader Peter Robinson have confirmed the failure of the Haass talks and the continuing difficulties within the Six-County power-sharing regime.
On Monday, a Sinn Fein motion calling for the implementation of proposals tackling sectarian marches, the flying of flags and dealing with the past conflict was rejected by the North’s built-in unionist majority.
A subsequent meeting of the five party leaders was described as “useful”, but Sinn Fein said that the party was still looking for implementation and described a plan for the establishment of a new talks working group as “time wasting”.
The DUP is seeking a full renegotiation of the current draft proposals, which were drawn up by US talks mediator Richard Haass before talks collapsed before the New Year.
Fortunately, tensions on the streets are relatively low. A flags protest march from central Belfast on Saturday saw only 300 loyalist protesters, despite claims that 10,000 would turn out. The march left city hall an hour late, at 1pm, in apparent defiance of the Parades Commission rulings, but passed off peacefully.
However, the blame game over the collapse of the process is intensifying. Mr McGuinness said that over course of the last 18 months, unionist parties had been “dancing to the tune of extremists within their own community”. after it emerged that the DUP had received briefings from high-profile loyalists Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson.
He also said the the anti-Catholic Orange Order had been “acting as one” with the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in scuppering the talks. And in an unusually frank statement, Mr McGuinness said the elephant in the room was “whether or not unionist political leaders are prepared to confront the extreme elements within their community who they are letting set their agenda on Haass to date and former members of the RUC and other Crown forces lobbying the DUP and the UUP to prevent truth recovery processes which are victim-centred”.
In response, DUP MP Nigel Dodds accused Sinn Fein of “wallowing in the filth of murder”, in reference to a commemorative parade last summer for fallen IRA Volunteers in Castlederg, County Tyrone.
And on Friday morning, in the harshest statement yet, the DUP leader Peter Robinson accused the Sinn Fein man of “acting like a dictator” and being in “political denial”. He also claimed Mr McGuinness had a “visceral hatred” of the Orange Order.
“He [McGuinness] speaks as if he is not one of the parties but rather the controller and dictator of how the process will operate. He appears to believe it is everyone else’s duty to reach an agreement on his terms,” he said.
In a further sign of mounting tension between the two most powerful Six-County politicians, the DUP leader added: “Sinn Fein will not dictate the rules of engagement. They do not own the process. They do not control how it will function or what it will (or will not) consider, nor will they prescribe the timing.”
“As the largest party in Northern Ireland, we will not be shepherded into any structure that restricts our ability to conclude agreement on deal imperatives.
“If Sinn Fein or any other party does not want to be part of a process that seeks to resolve outstanding issues they can walk away, but that will display a lack of leadership on their part.”
But Mr McGuinness held out hopes that the US government would push a deadline for a resolution of the Haass talks -- St Patrick’s Day, March 17. “Every year we are invited to the White House to meet with the president, they’ve taken a huge interest,” he said.