Stormont no-show fuels concern over Martin McGuinness' health
Concerns over the health of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were growing last night after he missed a key Sinn Fein announcement.
The party yesterday outlined proposals for a probe into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal at a high-profile Stormont press conference.
However, Mr McGuinness was nowhere to be seen.
Earlier this week he was described as "not well".
For the second time in three days, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill took the party reins, announcing demands for an independent investigation into the crisis and renewing calls for Arlene Foster to stand aside.
The Deputy First Minister has not been seen in public since before Christmas and questions about his health and the stability of his position are mounting.
He took part in a meeting with Mrs Foster and DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds in Belfast on Wednesday, and held talks with Secretary of State James Brokenshire. Sinn Fein later issued a joint statement from Mr McGuinness and Ms O'Neill. However, Mr McGuinness made no public comment or appearance after the meeting. And at yesterday's Stormont press conference, the only reference to Mr McGuinness came from Ms O'Neill, who insisted he was central to decision-making around the RHI saga.
"Obviously Martin has his health issues but despite all of that he is still at the core of all these issues and has been involved in making all these decisions," she said.
Earlier this week Mrs Foster alluded to Mr McGuinness's health troubles in an interview, where she referred to "jockeying for position" within Sinn Fein.
She said: "The Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is not well and there seems to be some jockeying for position internally."
Party leader Gerry Adams told a Sinn Fein meeting before Christmas that Mr McGuinness's health was making it difficult to secure the political institutions.
In an interview before Christmas, Mr McGuinness (66) said: "I am being attended to by a wonderful group of doctors and nurses from our health service and I think that's all I have to say about it at the moment."
No further details of his health problems have been outlined, and his continued absence has only served to fuel speculation.
The Belfast Telegraph asked Sinn Fein why Mr McGuinness wasn't at yesterday's press conference and if the public could be assured about his health and the stability of his position.
A party spokesman said: "Martin McGuinness is receiving ongoing medical treatment but he has been in contact with the Executive Office and Sinn Fein colleagues throughout the ongoing crisis. The Deputy First Minister met with Sinn Fein ministers in Stormont Castle this week before meetings with Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds and the British Secretary of State James Brokenshire."
Following questions about the Deputy First Minister's state of health, the Executive Office referred the Belfast Telegraph back to a previous statement.
It said: "Martin McGuinness is fulfilling his responsibilities as Deputy First Minister working with his departmental political advisers. There has been no disruption to the work of the Executive Office during this period."
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph last month, former Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay predicted a "changing of the guard" in the party, suggesting Mr McGuinness could step down this year.
"Over the past two weeks there have been plenty of references to Martin's health, so that may be a signal that changes are coming.
"Gerry Adams has commented on Martin's health in a number of interviews, but at the end of the day it will be down to Martin McGuinness himself and the party leadership," he said.
Concerns over Mr McGuinness's health emerged at the start of December when he pulled out of a trade mission to China at the last minute.
His absence had initially been blamed on "unforeseen personal circumstances".
Mr McGuinnness is a regular user of Twitter, but has posted just once since New Year's Eve.