The DUP and Sinn Fein clashed today at the Labour Party annual conference — but agreed that the Executive and Assembly are heading towards a political crisis.
Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson insisted no progress on the devolution of policing and justice can be made without a meeting of the Executive, while Sinn Fein MP Pat Doherty maintained there could be no advance towards an Executive without at least a timeframe for the transfer of powers.
Mr Doherty also argued that the DUP "want away" from powersharing and equality to the old system of majority rule.
"It is written all over their faces in everything they do, and it isn't going to happen," he said.
But Mr Donaldson retorted: "There is no one in the DUP who would advocate a return to unionist majority rule... we are signed up to the concept of power-sharing."
The Lagan Valley MP also told the breakfast audience in Manchester that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had blundered by his demand last week for unionists to agree to set a date for the switch of policing and justice responsibilities from Westminister.
And he added: "I don't think it is a mistake Tony Blair would have made because there is a need to be even handed."
He said Mr Brown had come to the Assembly last Tuesday and had not even mentioned that the Executive has not met for three months.
He said the DUP were annoyed by an unhelpful intervention from a Prime Minister "who might not be Prime Ministers were it not for nine votes (my party) gave on a very critical issue (the terrorism bill)".
But Mr Doherty said Mr Brown had "simply laid it out as it is" and the DUP had given a commitment at St Andrews and would have to live up to that.
"I think it is remiss of the DUP to say they didn't give a commitment to the transfer of policing and justice powers by the spring of this year.
“You cannot move forward on the basis of equality and co-operation if you renege," he added.
But Mr Donaldson said Ian Paisley made it clear at St Andrews that the party would not enter into any timetable and there was still insufficient confidence in the community.
And he said of a recent Northern Ireland Office poll, referred to by Mr Brown and Secretary of State Shaun Woodward yesterday which concluded there is majority support among both nationalists and unionists for the powers to transfer within the next 12 months, that confidence in the Executive is reducing significantly “because we are not doing the business”.
Mr Donaldson was replacing First Minister Peter Robinson at the Royal Mail event who decided not to attend because of Mr Brown's remarks last week.
And the DUP confirmed Mr Robinson will not be attending the Conservative conference in Birmingham next week, where the emphasis will include recent talks for the establishment of a ‘joint force' in Northern Ireland with the Ulster Unionist Party.
Mr Robinson had been expected at the event with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who also withdrew yesterday for personal reasons, and was replaced by Mr Doherty.
The pointed exchanges today — with Mr Donaldson at one point calling Mr Doherty “out of touch” which he emphatically rejected — would appear to make an intervention by the British and Irish governments more likely, and sooner rather than later.