DUP-Tory deal facing Sinn Fein backlash over military covenant
Sinn Fein is expected to strongly oppose the implementation of the military covenant in Northern Ireland, which gives better treatment to former members of the armed forces.
The adoption of the covenant is expected to be part of the deal between the DUP and the Tory Government which, sources say, will be finalised in coming days.
Military veterans had complained that the covenant, which entitles them and their families to some priority medical treatment and other services, hadn't been fully implemented in Northern Ireland.
Former Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay tweeted that if Theresa May had done a deal with the DUP on what was an issue devolved to Stormont, she might as well rip up the Good Friday Agreement.
He highlighted a clause of the covenant that he said stated service personnel should have "priority status" in applying for social housing and questioned how this could be applied by the Housing Executive.
Political commentator and former Sinn Fein election candidate Chris Donnelly tweeted: "Priority housing for British soldiers just as Equality Commission confirms waiting list times worst for Catholics."
A report published earlier this week revealed that Catholics wait six months longer than Protestants for social housing.
However, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson last night strenuously defended the covenant and claimed it wouldn't breach Northern Ireland's equality laws.
"The military covenant does not give priority preferential treatment to armed forces members, rather it ensures that they aren't disadvantaged by virtue of their service," he said.
"The Equality Commission gave evidence to Parliament confirming that the covenant doesn't breach equality legislation in Northern Ireland. Those who seek to oppose this are barking up the wrong tree."
The Lagan Valley MP accused Sinn Fein of not practising what it preached.
"The men and women who served our country should be treated with respect," he said.
"Republicans constantly refer to the respect agenda - perhaps it is time they stepped up to the plate and started practising it themselves."
The military covenant will be deeply unpopular with republican grassroots, who will want equal treatment for ex-IRA prisoners whom they claim already experience discrimination.
DUP insiders have revealed that the Tory Government has agreed to ensure that all the provisions of the covenant are implemented in Northern Ireland in the same way as they are in Britain.
The Queen's Speech on Wednesday referred to the covenant being implemented in the whole of the UK. Senior DUP figures said that a deal between their party and the Tories to support Mrs May's minority Government was imminent.
"We are nearly there," one said. "There are still several issues to be finalised but we are at most days away from doing that."
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein claimed that the Government was just "going through the motions" in talks to restore power-sharing at Stormont and was more focused on its efforts to strike a deal with the DUP at Westminster.
Conor Murphy MLA said that his party had serious concerns that the deadline for saving devolution would be missed due to the disengagement of both the DUP and the Conservatives. He rubbished suggestions that an agreement could be reached between the parties in Belfast before details of any Tory/DUP accord were published.
Mr Murphy said while the official deadline for a deal at Stormont was next Thursday, the British and Irish Governments had told the participants an agreement had to be effectively reached by Tuesday.
"The reality is the British Government are going through the motions here while their game is their own preservation of their own interests in London," he said.
"Thus far we have not seen, as the British Government and the DUP have been distracted with other business, we haven't seen the level of engagement that is required here.
"We are seriously concerned given the time-frame we are operating here, given the lack of any visibility in terms of the deal being negotiated between the DUP and British Government. Time is fast running out on this process."
But DUP MLA Simon Hamilton offered a contrasting view on the state of the Stormont talks.
He claimed that yesterday had been a "good day of engagement" and added that "we continue to make progress and we remain hopeful".