An attempt by Northern Ireland’s political leaders to display a united front over the flag crisis floundered when the UUP leader refused to sign a joint statement, it can be revealed.
A meeting of the five main party leaders on Tuesday evening on the recent violence broke up in disagreement after Mike Nesbitt refused to add his name to the draft statement read out to him by DUP leader Peter Robinson.
One of his main concerns was that it did not reaffirm Northern Ireland’s position within the UK, though it is understood he had other issues.
It is believed Martin McGuinness was particularly annoyed at Mr Nesbitt’s stance. This may explain Mr McGuinness’ angry comments about failure to reach agreement in the Short Strand on Wednesday morning when he condemned the failure of political leaders to act in concert.
The edge between the two men was also evident in a speech Mr Nesbitt delivered in Bessbrook last night. “I do not believe Martin McGuinness when he says he left the IRA in the early 1970s. And because of that — and much, much more — I do not trust Sinn Fein,” he told his party’s South Armagh branch.
And he accused Mr McGuinness of breaking faith by criticising a previous all-party statement, from December 20 as too vague.
“I spent years as a journalist, questioning and pushing republicans like Martin McGuinness because they would not go far enough in their statements about the murders of civilians and police officers and soldiers butchered by the IRA,” said Mr Nesbitt, a former TV presenter.
Sources say Mr Nesbitt left Tuesday’s meeting about 40 minutes after it started saying he had to meet loyalists with a view to getting the street violence stopped.
Around 10pm the First Minister rang him to say there were proposals to set up an all-party group to look at the issues behind the violence.
“What was more important was getting a statement from five party leaders to show some political cohesion and we had the agreement of four. Mike said he couldn’t agree to it because it didn’t restate the constitutional position of Northern Ireland,” a source close to the talks said.
Yesterday, Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, and Eamon Gilmore, the Irish Foreign Minister and Tanaiste, met the First and Deputy First Ministers.
She said it was time for political dialogue to replace street protests.
Mr Gilmore said the meeting was “positive and productive.”