The North’s leaders Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness clashed in public today as the problems at the heart of the power-sharing government were aired.
The clash came as Taoiseach Brian Cowen led a team of 26-County ministers in a session of cross-border talks with members of the Six-County administration.
After smiles and handshakes before the cameras at a press conference, the traditionially upbeat mood dropped as the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the northern Executive began sniping at each other.
The long-standing stalemate was exposed to the public when Mr McGuinness told journalists that the DUP had raised obstacles to a deal over the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
As the men stood side-by-side in front of the media, DUP leader Peter Robinson then criticised Mr McGuinness for mentioning private matters in public. Eyebrows were raised as Mr McGuinness shook his head in disagreement as Mr Robinson spoke, in sharp contrast to the familiar ‘chuckle brothers’ image promoted in years past.
The Sinn Fein deputy leader also criticised DUP calls for a scrapping of the Parades Commission, which rules on Orange Order parades, and said it could not be a pre-condition to a deal on the transfer of policing and justice powers.
Mr McGuinness said: “I move forward against the backdrop of the agreements that I made with Peter Robinson 13 months ago where we agreed an over-30 step approach to the transfer of powers on policing and justice.
“I have to say at no stage in that process was the issue of issues being used as pre-conditions for the transfer of power for policing and justice mentioned.”
In a reference to a DUP letter to the British Prime Minister demanding ‘confidence building’ measures for unionists before a deal, Mr McGuinness added: “At no stage were people contemplating sending, on solo runs, letters to Prime Ministers which effectively I had not seen, was not made aware of and was completely surprised by.”
Mr Robinson claimed Sinn Fein had already backed reform of parades but had now opted to delay the measures as a tactic.
The DUP leader added: “I regret the tone of the latter remarks.
“I don’t think that it is helpful for us to be going into the finer details of these matters, but nobody is in any doubt that the issue of parades was moving forward and was held back.”
The exchanges were seen as a rare insight into the two leaders’ long-running stalemate, now in its second year.
Earlier this year, Mr McGuinness revealed for the first time in October that he had not been able to build an adequate relationship with Mr Robinson.
The North-South Ministerial Council, first formed under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is marking its tenth anniversary, but has remained largely moribund since the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement.
The sense of unreality in the political system in the North increased this week when just one of the political parties -- the SDLP -- nominated a candidate for the post of Stormont Justice Minister by the stated deadline.
The nominations countdown took place despite the lack of agreement over the transfer of the policing and justice powers to the Stormont administration.
Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have said they will not be in the running for the post, while the SDLP have claimed the job is rightfully theirs under the d’Hondt power-sharing rules.
The SDLP surprised political observers when it nominated its only existing Minister, Margaret Ritchie, confusing the ongoing internal race for the party leadership.
The Alliance party, seen as most likely to with the necessary cross community vote at Stormont, said there was “no point” in naming a candidate.
“There has been no progress”, Alliance Party leader David Ford said. “There’s no point in having devolution of justice unless we have policies agreed.
“We can’t just pin a rosette on somebody and say they’re now the minister and put them at the back of a chauffeur-driven car and say that all is well. We really need delivery.”