Representatives of Northern Ireland’s two main unionist parties have refused to confirm whether they would support a Sinn Fein First Minister if the republican party was to become the biggest at Stormont.
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said his party is aiming to take the position of First Minister, while DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he would not answer hypothetical questions.
But Sinn Fein responded by accusing the DUP of advancing a “rejectionist agenda of powersharing”.
Northern Ireland’s next Assembly election is scheduled for May next year and recent opinion polls have indicated that Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party.
We are seven months from an election. I have no idea what the environment is going to be seven months from nowUUP leader Doug Beattie
This would mean it would be entitled to nominate for the First Minister post for the first time, with the deputy First Minister role going to the largest unionist party.
Both the First and deputy First Minister posts have equal powers and one cannot be in office without the other.
The DUP’s Paul Givan currently holds the First Minister post and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill is deputy First Minister.
But unionist parties have refused to confirm whether they would support an Executive which has a Sinn Fein First Minister.
Mr Beattie was asked for clarity during an appearance on the BBC.
He said: “We are seven months from an election. I have no idea what the environment is going to be seven months from now.
“The Ulster Unionist Party will be going into the election to be the largest party in Northern Ireland. We are aiming to be the First Minister.”
Asked again if he would take part in an Executive with a Sinn Fein First Minister, Mr Beattie said: “I am not telling people what my tactics are going to be seven months out from an election.
“Everything is tactics. The number of candidates I am going to run is tactics, everything that we put in our manifesto will outline where we are going to be. We are playing for number one.”
DUP MP Mr Wilson was asked the same question.
He said: “As far as we are concerned, we will be going to the electorate at the forthcoming election, whenever that happens to be, asking the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that those who wrecked our country for 40 years, those who want to tear our country out of the United Kingdom and those who can’t even show any respect to unionist traditions, that they should not become the biggest party in the representation of Northern Ireland.
“I don’t answer hypothetical questions.”
But Sinn Fein’s junior minister in the Executive, Declan Kearney, said Northern Ireland cannot go back to “majoritarianism”.
“It sounds very clearly that Sammy Wilson is advancing a rejectionist agenda of powersharing,” he said.
“Sinn Fein will continue to represent all citizens in this society, regardless of their background. I make no distinction between anyone in this society, I reject the idea that we can go back to majoritarianism.
“That is what got this society into the mess that it lived through for 100 years.”