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DUP talks: Ashdown pilloried for 'sectarian' danger warning

By Noel McAdam

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown has come under fire after warning that a DUP-Conservative deal would allow sectarianism to infect national politics.

The Northern Ireland-born peer, who also served as a soldier in the province in the 1970s, was told his comments were wrong, crass and racist.

The attacks came after he quoted former Labour Party Prime Minister Jim Callaghan who - at the time he went into a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe's Liberals in 1978 - warned the country should never be put into "the hands of an Ulsterman".

Lord Ashdown said the phrase was not meant to be insulting but was viewed as a principle that "you never let the Ulstermen get their hands on the nation".

"He didn't mean that Ulstermen are bad but the politics of NI is different and underlaid by sectarianism - and however decent and honest the politicians might be it is not a good idea to allow that sectarianism into national politics," he said.

"There will be a day when we can treat the Northern Ireland parties as entirely the same as all the others.

"That is manifestly not the case at the moment. It will arrive and I hope it arrives soon."

Ulster Unionist chief whip Steve Aiken, who is a senior Royal Navy veteran, hit back: "Paddy Ashdown's sneering and condescending comments are surprising, not least because he was largely brought up in Northern Ireland.

"Paddy Ashdown's comments were offensive, crass, and totally hypocritical given the willingness of the Liberal Democrats, who were only too keen to jettison some of their core principles, especially over tuition fees, for the tawdry opportunity to share power with Cameron's Tory Government."

And TUV leader Jim Allister said: "I found it deeply insulting, indeed I found it racist. To pick out people on the basis of cultural identity and say because you are an Ulsterman you can't be in government is outrageous.

"This is a man who is insisting on enforced government here, who has been in coalition and then baulks at some tentative arrangement with a party because it hails from Northern Ireland. It's called democracy.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she did not agree with Lord Ashdown that no party from Northern Ireland should be involved with the government of the UK. "I think it was wrong for him to put that in the way that he did."

But she added: "I do agree with him that it has consequences for our process here."

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