Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last night accused Ulster Unionist chief Sir Reg Empey of a “dismal failure of leadership” after his decline of support for next week's crunch Assembly vote to trigger the transfer of policing and justice powers.
At the opening session of his party's ard fheis in Dublin Mr McGuinness warned it was impossible for the UUP to sit on the Executive table by day and then court “rejectionist” unionist transfer votes at night.
The veteran republican said in the last few days a UUP document had set out the price for its support of the Hillsborough Agreement which would negate protections of power-sharing in the Good Friday Agreement and attempt to restore unionist majority rule.
“It was either written in the knowledge that it would be unacceptable by a party seeking an exit strategy or it was written by someone completely detached from the political realities of this process,” he told delegates.
His criticism came after Sir Reg indicated his party was not in a position to support the proposals on Tuesday, despite an appeal from DUP leader Peter Robinson that failure to back Tuesday's move would be a “massive mistake”.
Between them Sinn Fein and the DUP have sufficient Assembly votes — 64 MLAs out of 108 — to ensure the necessary threshold for a cross-community vote.
However, Mr Robinson has made clear he would prefer Ulster Unionist endorsement.
Sir Reg though said the Executive must be capable of carrying out its existing powers before new responsibilities for the courts, police and prison service are handed over from Westminster.
Mr McGuinness argued however: “The UUP and SDLP should support the transfer of power on policing and justice because we need these powers in the hands of local people.”
The SDLP is expected to back Tuesday's move.