Unionist election co-operation seen unlikely
Unionist election co-operation seen unlikely

Unionists have attacked each other over the possibility of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister following next May’s election to the Belfast Assembly at Stormont.

Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble who helped negotiate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, has strongly criticised the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which replaced it following negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

David - now ‘Lord’ - Trimble blamed the possibility of a Sinn Fein first minister, on the St Andrews deal.

Under the latter agreement, the first minister’s post is filled by the nominee of the largest political party rather than the largest “designation” in the Assembly. While the former system envisaged a unionist first minister, Trimble said the DUP-supported changes leave open the possibility Sinn Fein could become the largest party and Martin McGuinness the first minister.

He wrote: “The agreement we negotiated [in 1998] provided for a joint nomination and joint election to the two posts [first and deputy first minister]. So there would obviously have been discussions with Sinn Fein before any such joint nomination could have been made.

“But at St Andrews the joint election was replaced by the automatic elevation to first minister of the nominee of the largest party irrespective of the views of any other party. This was “a cynical exercise” by the DUP and Sinn Fein “to rig the election in their favour”. He called the arrangement the “St Andrews stitch-up”.

He continued: “The tragedy is that the DUP are not just perverting next year’s election, but threatening the future of Northern Ireland. The first minister has precedence and is the one to give leadership to the community as a whole. This is what should be happening. But these days it seems to me that McGuinness is the one that is publicly addressing the big issues, while Robinson is comparatively reticent . . . And the last thing to do would be to unite with a party capable of the cynical sectarian manoeuvres I have just described.”

The DUP hit back last night with North Down Assembly member Peter Weir claiming his party would not accept lecturing by Lord Trimble.

“This is the same man whose strategy destroyed the RUC and released every terrorist murderer on to our streets. Whilst Trimble’s UUP would have devolved policing and justice to an SF minister, the DUP sought and gained key changes so as it could be devolved in a way that unionists could support.”

He said the DUP had got “a fair deal for unionism and we’ve put unionism on the front foot”.

Last month, former DUP leader Ian Paisley broke with his party when he said that he could accept a Sinn Fein First Minister. Mr Paisley, now known as ‘Lord Bannside’, said: “I have to accept the will of the people”.

Despite calls from within the DUP and the Orange Order for some form of unionist unity, which might ensure a unionist First Minister, Paisley also made clear his opposition to the creation of a single unionist party.

He said that “within Northern Ireland, unionist unity in the sense of one grand political party is, in my opinion, a non-runner”.

* Reg Empey has formally written to the Ulster Unionist chairman to confirm he is resigning from the leadership of his party. He will officially stand down on Wednesday, September 22nd, when a new leader will be elected at a special meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

Nominations are now open and will close on Tuesday, August 31st. So far just Fermanagh Assembly member Tom Elliott has confirmed he will seek election.

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