Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has defended Peter Robinson's performance in the General Election.
The DUP boss was challenged yesterday on his shock defeat in East Belfast, but his republican opposite number spoke up on his behalf.
At a Press conference where the two men discussed their first meeting with new Secretary of State Owen Paterson, Mr McGuinness said the question about Mr Robinson was a distraction.
The Sinn Fein representative went on to praise unionist voters, who he said had rejected the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice at the polls and he credited Mr Robinson with that success.
“We have come out here today to talk about the meeting that we were in with Owen Paterson and I don't think that people, when they're watching their news tonight, should be subjected to issues that are not connected to that particular programme,” said Mr McGuinness.
“The meeting was important. The meeting was about the future, it's about a time of economic distress ... I think it's much better that if people are watching their news bulletins tonight that they get an opportunity to see how Peter and I have advocated on their behalf.”
Mr Robinson added: “First of all, the Democratic Unionist Party mandate was very substantial in the election. The strategy, direction, policy put forward by the party, and through me as leader of the party, was endorsed by the unionist electorate.
“We came out of the election better than the other two unionist parties, one which has virtually been wiped out and the other which has had its strategy roundly rejected. Of course I have had a personal disappointment. I have to say, in many ways, it does free
my time up here.” Mr Robinson said he had a mandate as an MLA and would use it to build on the peace and stability that had been secured.
Mr McGuinness said it was important that unionists in the General Election backed parties involved in power-sharing at the Assembly, adding: “I credit Peter Robinson for getting that result during the course of the election. For me that sent a very powerful message right into the community that I represent, that we are moving forward in a much better fashion than we did before.”
Mr Robinson’s defeat to Alliance’s Naomi Long in East Belfast has sparked intense speculation about his future as First Minister and DUP leader.
While his Assembly colleagues backed him this week, there is still doubt over whether he will lead the party into next year’s Stormont election.
Mr Robinson was supposed to have been the DUP’s only remaining double-jobber, keeping his Stormont and Westminster posts.
He and the party justified this plan on the basis that its leader should be in the Commons.
In March, when launching the DUP’s election slogan, Mr Robinson said “the access that comes with being a Member of Parliament is important for the leader of unionism, whoever that is”.