The First and Deputy First Minister have joined forces to launch and unprecedented attack on Secretary of State Owen Paterson after he used a speech in Dublin to rebuke them for alleged lack of progress on issues like creating an opposition and building a shared society.
Delivering a strong message for Mr Paterson to keep his nose out of devolved affairs, Mr McGuinness and Mr Robinson used separate — and sometimes conflicting — statements to brand him immature, partisan, clumsy and detached from reality.
Vernon Coaker, shadow Secretary of State, joined in the condemnation. Only the UUP defended Mr Paterson’s proposals.
So savage was the riposte to his Dublin speech that it puts a question mark over the confidence of the two bigger parties in Mr Paterson as Ulster Secretary.
Mr McGuinness reserved his strongest anger for the section of the speech in which Mr Paterson called for an official opposition at Stormont. This long-standing Tory policy, which is shared by the DUP, is strongly resisted by Sinn Fein, who regard it as a threat to power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr McGuinness said that “clumsy and ill-thought-out” comments had marked Mr Paterson’s time here. He accused him of “seeking to use the bogus notion of a failure of the Executive to deliver on issues as a cover to try and start a debate on undermining the power-sharing and equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Mr Robinson focused his fire on Mr Paterson’s criticisms of lack of progress in the Executive.
“Such highly political comments are unfortunate given the significant progress that has been made across a range of policy areas this week,” he said.
“Many within Northern Ireland will consider the Secretary of State's comments as ill-advised when they look at the relative stability of the Northern Ireland Executive and compare it with the on-going open warfare in the Westminster coalition,” he added.
Robin Swann, Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim, welcomed Mr Paterson’s comment and accused Sinn Fein of hypocrisy because it was in opposition in the Republic while resisting it in Northern Ireland.
Story so far
The comments which enraged the First and Deputy First Ministers were made in a lunchtime speech to the Institute for International and European Affairs in Dublin. Mr Paterson said that he intended to publish a consultation paper calling for fixed Assembly terms and movement towards an official opposition. He was “profoundly disappointed” to be awaiting publication of a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy.