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Alasdair McDonnell has lost control of SDLP, claims Martin McGuinness

By Noel McAdam

Martin McGuinness has accused Alasdair McDonnell of losing control of the SDLP to party "dissidents" ready to risk the collapse of Stormont.

Writing exclusively in the Belfast Telegraph today, the Deputy First Minister claimed Mr McDonnell had reneged on commitments over welfare reform to engage in "party political grandstanding".

In a barnstorming attack, he said both the SDLP chief and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt had put their parties' electoral ambitions ahead of the needs of people affected by the biggest upheaval in the benefits system in 50 years.

The senior Sinn Fein politician alleged that the two smaller Executive parties had engaged in "meaningless posturing aimed at securing headlines" and added: "Their hypocrisy is astounding."

But Mr McDonnell said the criticism showed Mr McGuinness was "rattled" because "unlike Sinn Fein, we held the line on welfare reform".

Mr Nesbitt called it was "an irrational and panicked outburst" which was "riddled with holes".

The outbreak of inter-party warfare over welfare came after SF and the DUP ensured the benefits legislation moved on to its next stage in the Assembly the week after next when it will face further amendments.

The SDLP said the DUP's use of a blocking mechanism to collapse amendments during this week's two-day debate had "covered the blushes" of SF over the reforms. Both the SDLP and UUP had severely rebuked the DUP for using 'petitions of concern' - requiring majorities of both unionists and nationalists - to veto almost 50 amendments. But DUP leader Peter Robinson said parties must stick to commitments made in the Stormont House Agreement.

In his article today, Mr McGuinness claims the SDLP ignored repeated requests over three weeks to discuss possible amendments. He said that, along with the UUP, the SDLP did not raise the issue at Executive meetings, before proposing a series of changes at the last minute.

This prompted the use of the controversial 'petitions' and the DUP is the only party in the Assembly with the numbers to trigger the veto alone. In his blistering broadside, Mr McGuinness hit out: "They did this because they were never interested in agreed amendments, only in scoring political points. It is my view that the SDLP has gone down this road because their leader has lost control to such an extent that we are now dealing with two parties within the SDLP.

"The SDLP dissidents are clearly now in charge and are prepared to risk the collapse of the agreement - and thereby the power-sharing institutions - for the sake of party political grandstanding."

Mr McDonnell, however, hit back, accusing Mr McGuinness of being "wrong - politically, factually and ethically - on his and his party's approach to welfare reform".

He added: "His claim that the SDLP 'signed up to the Stormont House Agreement is factually incorrect. We made a firm commitment that we would implement the Stormont House Agreement but continue seeking to improve those elements which were weak.

"Sinn Fein are rattled and Martin McGuinness is now lashing out because the DUP has forced him to swallow Tory ideology. One example proves the point time after time - Martin McGuinness promised to use a petition of concern to block the bedroom tax. When it came to the crunch, he refused to do so.

"He then not only failed to sign our petition to block this cruel attack on struggling families, but marched his party through the voting lobby alongside the DUP and TUV to support the bedroom tax."

And Mr Nesbitt said he would not allow the Stormont House 'heads of agreement' to become a "political straightjacket". "Martin McGuinness can do better than that because his statement is not only an irrational and panicked outburst, but also riddled with holes," he said.

"There is not enough space to correct all of Martin McGuinness's factual inaccuracies but the UUP did not and has not 'signed up' to the Stormont House Agreement. We are giving it a fair wind, conscious that the 'devil is in the detail' and while I remain positive in outlook, I shall not let that heads of agreement become a political straightjacket."

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