Amid the latest bout of crisis talks in Belfast, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has warned that the Democratic Unionist Party simply don’t want to work with Catholics.
Dr McDonnell made the comments at the opening of a new party office in Glengormley, and the directness of his remarks came as a shock to the political process.
He said: “The DUP don’t want partnership - they don’t want a taig [Catholic] about the place. I’m sorry, it’s as brutal as that.
“I’m not divisive, I don’t like to be like that but they, at times, they’ve made it very clear to us they don’t support the Good Friday Agreement, they don’t support a lot of the changes that have taken place.”
The statement brought some straight-talking into a political crisis which has rumbled on in one form or another for several years.
Earlier this month, DUP acting First Minister Arlene Foster was accused of being nakedly sectarian when she said her job was to prevent “rogues and renegades” from the two nationalist parties from taking any substantive decisions.
Ironically, she accused Mr McDonnell of causing offence to Catholics.
She said: “Alasdair McDonnell should apologise today, not just for an inaccurate slur on the DUP, but for the offense he will undoubtedly have caused to many Catholics by referring to them as ‘taigs’.”
She also called for an apology for two of the SDLP’s nationalist positions: its support for the naming of Raymond McCreesh park in Newry in honour of the IRA hunger striker; and for the release of political prisoner and former Sinn Fein leadership figure, Gerry McGeough.
In an interview with the BBC on Friday, Dr McDonnell defended his comment. He said: “Most of the messages I’m getting are congratulatory messages telling me it was time somebody told the truth.
“And quite frankly I would make [the comments] all over again because they have to be said.
“We’ve reached a stage after a couple of weeks of talks that it’s time to call it as it is, to be honest and tell the truth, and I called it as I saw it.”
Dr McDonnell also angered Sinn Fein.
He said: “Sinn Fein can’t tell the truth. They just can’t tell the truth, and they can tell us whatever they like and you’ve examples like Gerry Adams was never in the IRA and you’ve examples like Martin McGuinness saying this, that and the other thing. They’re not telling the truth.”
He said there were “people out there associated with, connected with or involved in some way - that basically were involved in helping and supporting the murder of Kevin McGuigan.”
He was referring to accusations that individual members of the Provisional IRA may have been involved in the killing of McGuigan as part of a lingering power struggle in republican areas of south and east Belfast.
Sinn Fein branded the comments as political opportunism. Party MLA Alex Maskey accused the SDLP leader of using the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the related murder last May of Jock Davison for electoral purposes.
“The brutal murders of both Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan have been exploited by the unionist parties for their own internal electoral intentions and Alasdair McDonnell’s scurrilous allegations are clearly an attempt to move the SDLP onto the same ground to score cheap political points,” he said.
“That’s where two main parties have let us down over nine years”
His party has also challenged the SDLP and others to “put up or shut up” when making accusations linking the party to criminal acts.
On Monday, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister made a strong defence of his party’s commitment to exclusively peaceful and legal activity.
“I am not putting up with this nonsense anymore,” he said.
“During the course of this morning’s engagement I took those people to task. I told them if anybody has any information whatsoever about any party in government being involved in criminality that they should put it up on the table and, more importantly, they should put it to the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland).
“In other words I told them it is now time for them to put up or shut up.”
But the prospect of genuine power-sharing at Stormont appears no closer this week in a week dominated by the health and finances of DUP leader Peter Robinson.
Last weekend, Robinson was hospitalised after suffering an adverse reaction to medication for a heart condition. On Wednesday, his involvement in the allegedly corrupt ten-figure sale of a property portfolio owned by the Dublin government’s National Assets Management Authority (NAMA) also dominated headlines.
None of this diluted his combative nature when dealing with Catholic politicians in the talks. He said his party has now issued six demands in the talks, including the establishment of a “permanent” structure to provide a comprehensive examination and assessment of IRA and loyalist activity,
“It should have sanctions applied to anybody who breaches it,” he said.
‘PANEL OF EXPERTS’
In a sop to the DUP, three establishment figures were named this week to head up a “one-off” new monitoring commission.
They were Lord Carlile of Berriew, who previously held the post of “independent reviewer of national security arrangements in Northern Ireland”; Rosalie Flanagan, a former top official at Stormont, and barrister Stephen Shaw; who recently represented US vulture fund Cerberus, the buyer in the allegedly corrupt sale by NAMA.
The three ‘experts’ are to report on IRA and loyalist activity in mid-October after assessing information held by the PSNI and British military and other intelligence agencies.