Senior Ulster Unionists have said that they will not be supporting the deal to devolve policing powers from London to Belfast at a crucial vote in the Six-County Assembly at Stormont tomorrow.
Traditionally the more moderate of the two larger unionist parties, the Ulster Unionists have in recent days sent a series of demands to the other parties in the Assembly designed to “tackle matters of concern”. Among them is a proposal for an overhaul of the operation of the power-sharing Six-County institutions as well as the abandonment of changes to the educational selection process for schoolchildren.
But hopes of bringing the UUP to support last month’s Hillsborough Agreement suddenly collapsed tonight when the party dramatically accused Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness of throwing them out of a meeting.
“The deputy First Minister’s angry and aggressive attempt to lecture the UUP was wholly unacceptable. When challenged on his tone, the meeting broke down”, declared Ulster Unionist Chief Whip Fred Cobain.
“If this is how Sinn Fein understands power-sharing, then it is small wonder that the Executive is dysfunctional”.
Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly rejected the UUP version of events.
“It probably says much of the current state of the UUP that they go running to the media claiming that Martin McGuinness threw them out of his offices this afternoon,” he said in a statement.
“What actually happened was that the UUP requested a meeting with Martin McGuinness, Martin facilitated that meeting. Early in the meeting Fred Cobain stated that he wasn’t at the meeting with Martin McGuinness to listen to anything the Deputy First Minister wanted to say.
“Martin correctly pointed out that if that was the case there was little point in Mr Cobain continuing to be there. At that point Mr Cobain left the meeting followed in dribs and drabs by his party colleagues.
“I have to say it seems the UUP are determined to remain on the rejectionist hook they have put themselves on. The proposals they put forward last week to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, introduce multiple Executive vetoes and introduce majority rule by the back door are further evidence of this.”
The UUP will make a final decision on whether or not to back devolution of policing and justice at a meeting of the party’s executive tonight. But it appears certain the party will oppose tomorrow’s key motion.
On Sunday, the UUP leader Reg Empey said nothing substantive had been done to assuage his concerns, despite a brief phone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“I will not be lectured by anyone whether from America or Sinn Fein or anyone, particularly not the Secretary of State on this issue”, UUP health minister Michael McGimpsey said this evening.
“Our credentials on this are absolutely impeccable. This is the wrong time. Devolution and the executive are not working. The assembly is not functioning as it should; therefore it will be absolutely wrong to put a key responsibility like devolution of policing and justice into the mix.”
Earlier, the Ulster Unionists hit back at the British government’s Northern Ireland Office after it published a widely ridiculed ‘opinion poll’, indicating that three quarters of people in the Six Counties want the transfer of policing and justice powers.
“This is not the first time that the NIO has released dubious polling data at a dubious time on the issue of devolution of policing and justice”, UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy said.
The DUP’s executive is also meeting to assess the deal. Despite previous statements claiming a need for UUP support to show unionist “community confidence”, it is believed that the DUP leadership will call on the party to support tomorrow’s vote on devolution.
“We have an agreement that is sound. It provides safety and security to the people of Northern Ireland”, DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said tonight.
Regardless of the UUP’s position, the motion to establish a department of justice, with Alliance leader David Ford expected to be offered the post, can be carried with just the support of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
But there are still concerns that DUP hardliners will back away from the deal. Only a small number of DUP defections would be required to reject the deal.
Martin McGuinness told the annual Sinn Fein conference in Dublin this weekend that the Ulster Unionists and nationalist SDLP were undermining the power-sharing government and the Hillsborough deal.
He deplored the UUP’s position. “This is a dismal failure of political leadership. Playing party politics with the future of the institutions is unacceptable,” Mr McGuinness said.
He said that the UUP had previously presented Sinn Fein with a document that would have undermined important elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, including the safeguards that guaranteed power-sharing.
“However disguised, they attempt to bring us back to unionist majority rule. It was either written by a party seeking an exit strategy or it was written by someone completely detached from the political realities of this process,” he said.
“The electorate will reject any party seeking to dash the hopes generated by the Hillsborough agreement for narrow ends,” Mr McGuinness said.
“Let me say to the UUP, it is impossible to sit round the power-sharing table by day and court rejectionist transfers by night,” he added.
“Or indeed, as the SDLP have tried to do, sit round the Executive table in Stormont Castle and then pretend to be in the opposition benches in the Assembly.”
Mr McGuinness said that tomorrow’s Assembly vote on policing and justice is important.
“Our MLAs will vote yes. In doing so, we continue to progress a peace process that has overwhelming support amongst our people.
“Our vision of a united Ireland is inclusive, it is real and it is achievable.”
In his speech on Saturday, he attacked UUP demands for wanting a resolution on educational reform, including the controversial issue of academic selection of students from the age of eleven, before signing up to the Hillsborough Agreement.
“Is Reg Empey really saying that he is threatening the political institutions because Caitriona Ruane won’t reintroduce the 11-plus, he asked.
“What is more dysfunctional than that?”