The North’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness admitted yesterday that power-sharing is facing a crisis. In a stinging rebuke to Peter Robinson, he said the First Minister “needs to get his act together”.
Mr McGuinness’s comments came after senior figures in Robinson’s DUP last week mocked the Sinn Fein leader over his failure to advance the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
Meanwhile, it was confirmed today that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to fly to Belfast on October 12 for talks in her role as US envoy. It was also announced this [Thursday] evening that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is to fly into the North for urgent talks on Monday.
At Stormont, electoral concerns are thought to be adding to the pressure on the drawn-out political stalemate over issues such as policing, parades and the Irish language.
DUP MPs facing a Westminster challenge from the more hardline TUV, led by Jim Allister, last week were emphasising their ability to veto Sinn Fein’s political agenda. Allister is said to be threatening a political upset in next year’s general election over his view that the DUP are in power with “terrorists”.
Echoing the old ‘humiliation’ agenda espoused by former leader Ian Paisley in 2004, South Antrim MP Willie McCrea last week said Sinn Fein should “wake up and smell the coffee”. He said that, despite a number of upbeat comments from Martin McGuinness, there could be no progress on policing or the rest of the Sinn Fein agenda in the near future.
The relationship between Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness and First Minister Mr Robinson reached a new low point yesterday with the public spat at Stormont.
At Stormont yesterday, Mr McGuinness was asked by journalists if the Belfast administration was now unstable. He pointed to Mr Robinson’s majority-rule proposal and the calls by the DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds for the abolition of the North-South institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and the Equality and Human Rights Commissions.
“I think this place is experiencing real difficulties at this time by dint of the very negative contributions that have been made by Peter Robinson in the aftermath of his holiday in Florida and by his deputy leader Nigel Dodds,” he replied.
“So I think what we have to do is try to ensure that we move forward together.”
“Thus far we are not moving forward together.
“What we need to do is bring about a situation where the DUP recognise that this place will only work on the basis of partnership and equality.
“What they need to do is to face up to the challenges that imposes. The opposition is clearly there from within their own camp, from the likes of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and indeed internally within Peter Robinson’s own party.”
He also said he wanted to record his “annoyance” at the fact that he had “not been able to develop a close working relationship” with Mr Robinson.
“That is through no deficiency or lack of effort on my part,” he said.
In a response to Mr McGuinness last night, Robinson said he was hurt by the remarks.
He said it was “regrettable that the deputy first minister continues to publicly make intemperate personal remarks about me”.
“I am surprised that he believes such attacks are likely to help us resolve the issues that we presently face. I am not going to play his game by responding in kind. I will not allow the press to characterise his behaviour as a row between us,’’ he said.
“It requires both parties to be making nasty and provocative remarks to make it a row. This once again is a one-sided nasty attack.”
The row followed the postponement of meetings with British prime minister Gordon Brown on the devolution of policing and the DUP’s recent emphasis on its plan to return the Six Counties to a form of unionist majority rule.
Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness were due to meet Mr Brown this week for further negotiations but the DUP leader said he had other commitments. The talks on a financial package are now suspected to have been little more than a stalling strategy.
In this context, the visit by Hillary Clinton is significant. Earlier this summer, it was revealed that she had personally taken on the role of the North’s peace envoy.
In a more fundamental examination of the problems in the peace process, a new round of talks is expected to focus on the DUP’s unwillingness to genuinely govern alongside Sinn Fein.
She is expected to be joined by Declan Kelly, the newly appointed US Economic Envoy to the North, who is already in Belfast and holding talks in his new role.