Six-County officials are understood to have witnessed a blazing row between the leaders of the two main nationalist parties over new welfare cuts.
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell was reported to have “cursed and sworn” at Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness at Stormont on Monday as the leaders of the Executive parties met to discuss the implementation of December’s Stormont House Agreement.
The angry exchanges began after Mr McGuinness challenged the SDLP leader over his party’s stance on welfare reform. Mr McGuinness has publicly accused the SDLP of going back on December’s deal by tabling a series of amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill.
The SDLP accused Sinn Fein of adopting a right-wing agenda to welfare cuts in the Six Counties after it refused to allow any changes to the cutbacks agreed in December.
Sinn Fein has stuck rigidly to a deal reached with unionists and the Tory government in London for the implementation of austerity cuts in the Six Counties. Party spokesmen have insisted that as part of the Stormont House Agreement, they secured funds from the British exchequer to ameliorate the worst effects of the cutbacks, at least temporarily.
But a statement by McGuinness in which he condemned the SDLP for bringing forward amendments without having “agreed” them with the other Executive parties set of a war of words at a multi-party meeting at Stormont this week.
Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein later played down the dispute, and described the meeting was private. Electoral tensions are expected to further increase ahead of the May election to the Westminster parliament in London.
McDonnell, the sitting MP for South Belfast, is facing a challenge from Sinn Fein’s Mairtin O Muilleoir on top of a strong unionist challenge in the constituency. Meanwhile, in west Belfast, a seat held by Sinn Fein’s Paul Maskey is facing a challenge from both the SDLP and the ‘upstart’ People before Profit (PBP).
PBP Belfast city councillor Gerry Carroll, who surprised many when he won a council seat in the Black Mountain ward last year, said this week he would stand for West Belfast MP. His socialist party is strongest in the 26 Counties, where it opposes the coalition’s austerity policies, but it has not developed clear policies on Irish unity, prisoners or the conflict in the Six Counties.
“In the wake of the Stormont House agreement the lines have been drawn: all the main political parties here -- including the main nationalist and unionist parties -- have signed on to endless austerity and turned a deaf ear to the plight of the most vulnerable in our society,” Mr Carroll said.
“These cuts are not inevitable. Every vote for PBP in this election will be a voice raised against Austerity.”