It is common knowledge for some time that the DUP and Sinn Fein are unhappy bedfellows at Stormont. The relationship between First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is workmanlike.
They put on a brave face when on joint trade missions abroad but they struggle to get any meaningful work done at home. But there is now a real crisis in the power-sharing arrangement given the fall-out from the Downey court case and On The Runs letters.
We take seriously Mr Robinson's threat to resign unless there is a full judicial inquiry into the issue and we fully understand his anger and that of his colleague Nigel Dodds in his remarks in the Commons yesterday. They say they knew nothing about the letters given to 187 on-the-run republicans, effectively saying they were not wanted for any crimes. Both men are Privy Councillors and it is remarkable – and disturbing – that neither was told about these letters which were still being sent since the last general election.
Justice Minister David Ford was also kept in the dark about the letters and this was a shameful way to treat the devolved administration. While the process and the deals began under the Tony Blair government, the present Westminster coalition has continued the practice, so cannot absolve themselves from justifiable criticism.
Mr McGuinness' assertion that unionists need to calm down is hardly helpful given the double standards adopted by his party. They want an effective pardon for fellow republicans but want policemen and soldiers pursued for their alleged crimes. There is hypocrisy at the heart of that argument which even someone as robust as Gerry Kelly found impossible to defend yesterday.
Yet, even given these polar opposite positions from the major partners at Stormont, we should not lose sight of what is at stake. With little goodwill between the DUP and Sinn Fein on which to build, there is little doubt the peace process is in jeopardy. For that reason both parties – notwithstanding the imminent elections – should bite their tongues and not push each other into corners from which it would be impossible to extricate themselves.
While a full judicial inquiry as demanded by Mr Robinson is unlikely, the Secretary of State should at least initiate a review along the lines of the Da Silva inquiry into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane.
It should be comprehensive and swift to provide the answers that politicians require in a bid to prevent a Stormont meltdown.
The politicians must also remember that many unpalatable things were agreed to end the violence in Northern Ireland and brave compromises were made. They need to adopt the same cool heads during this crisis for the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.