Disagreement over the wording and timing of a pledge of office by the First and Deputy First Ministers in a restored power-sharing Executive has emerged as a key stumbling block as negotiations continue over a potentially historic deal between Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s DUP.
British Direct Ruler Peter Hain has put it up to the two parties to resolve the dispute which forced the postponement of what was scheduled to be a historic encounter between Mr Paisley and Gerry Adams this week.
Sinn Féin has said it is seeking to “strengthen” the proposed pledge, the terms of which were glossed over in the proposals presented by the Dublin and London governments last Friday.
Hain warned that if the controversy was not quickly settled he would wind up the Belfast Assembly in favour of “partnership” government arrangements with Dublin.
“The parties know that if we hit an immovable roadblock at any time we will dissolve the Assembly and politics in Northern Ireland and locally accountable politics will close down. It is their choice,” said Mr Hain.
The DUP leader dramatically pulled out of a first face-to-face encounter with Sinn Féin as his son, Ian Paisley Jr, insisted Sinn Féin would not have “their honour” in the pledge.
He insisted Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness would swear an oath to support the police and the rule of law next month, ahead of the transfer of powers to Belfast.
Sinn Féin were “running scared” because they had been “taken advantage of” in the negotiations in Scotland leading to the proposed St Andrews Agreement.
“This was tied down last week, but Sinn Féin have realised they were taken advantage of and they don`t like that and are trying to get their honour back, they are not getting it on this issue,” said Ian Paisley Jr.
“We are saying take the pledge like everyone else and if they don’t take it they are out.”
Mr Paisley Sr insisted promises made to his party by the British government had been written, not verbal.
“We are teaching the British government a lesson, they will not pull the wool over our eyes,” he said.
“We are not going to be pushed around. They thought they were going to push us around today.”
However, he also urged people “to cheer up”, as they had leaders they could trust and were making progress.
Gerry Adams said people had been disappointed by the Paisley boycott. There had been hopes for “a new phase” of the peace process, he said.
“Mr Paisley has accused the British government of bad faith. He has not accused Sinn Féin of bad faith. He obviously has the political resolution to that problem in his own hands. He should talk directly to Sinn Féin on these matters.
“Sinn Féin has put forward suggestions about the pledge of office which would, in our opinion strengthen it. If Mr Paisley has other suggestions then he should come along and talk to us and resolve these issues. I hope he does so speedily.
Sinn Féin hadn’t created the problem, he added, while reaching out the potential for a resolution.
“Mr Paisley has to resolve the problem he has highlighted and I wish him well in doing that. Within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and our rights and our entitlements, and the future for all of the people who live on this island, then Sinn Féin will be helpful.”
Speaking after a three-hour meeting of the party’s 56-member Ard Chomhairle (leadership body) in Dublin yesterday, Mr Adams said there would not be “a sackcloth and ashes” pledge.
Mr Adams said he did not believe Ian Paisley and the DUP had any private agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the controversial pledge and whether it has to be taken by the November 24 deadline.
Yesterday’s meeting decided to carry out a consultative process at all levels of the party, from leadership to grassroots, on the St Andrew’s Agreement published by the Irish and British governments in Scotland last week.
“There are challenges for the governments, for the DUP and for Sinn Féin and republicans,” he said. “But none of them are insurmountable because the prize is too big to allow anything to stop us.”