Unionist politicians have called on the British Secretary Owen Paterson to resign after comments he made on BBC’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ programme.
Owen Paterson said if Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness was elected First Minister, following Six-County Assembly elections in May, it would be “an extraordinary endorsement” of the peace process in the North.
Paterson was answering questions on why he had refused to change the rules on the election of First Minister after requests from the Ulster Unionist Party. The UUP, which has maintained a faltering association with Paterson’s Tories, was particularly angered.
Although Mr McGuinness, as Deputy First Minister, has equal status under the law with the DUP’s First Minister Peter Robinson, considerable bragging rights are associated with the top job, which falls to the leader of the largest party in the Assembly.
Paterson refused to accede to unionist demands for a change to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement to ensure McGuinness does not become First Minister if Sinn Fein emerges as the largest part in the May elections.
He said: “I don’t think it would be appropriate for a new coalition Government to change things around,” he said. “It is absolutely not for me as Secretary of State to comment on that, it is down to people to go to the polling booths and vote.”
Mr McNarry called on Paterson to consider his position. “He also needs to reconsider his professed ‘unionism’”, he added.
“It clearly differs markedly from that of Prime Minister David Cameron and it most certainly is out of touch with unionism in Northern Ireland,” Mr McNarry said.
“We are now seeing why he will do nothing to turn around the St Andrews Agreement provisions for electing a First Minister.”
Unionist hardliner Jim Allister claimed it showed the “perverse and anti-unionist” nature of the Stormont regime.
Mr Paterson insisted that only ‘local people’ would decide on the make-up of the Belfast Assembly.
“I think we should celebrate the fact that everybody wants to vote,” he said.