Hopes of increased efforts towards unionist unity have faded as finger-pointing between the parties began in the aftermath of the Assembly vote to trigger the transfer of justice powers.
With just 40 days to run for joint unionist candidates who could win back House of Commons seats in South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone to be agreed, the three main parties — DUP, Ulster Unionist and Traditional Unionist Voice — indulged in renewed rancour and recrimination.
While DUP leader Peter Robinson launched a ‘countdown to unity’ campaign, his deputy Nigel Dodds lambasted Ulster Unionists and their partners the Tories (UCUNF) after the former UUP deputy leader Lord Kilclooney said they had been wrong to vote against the policing and justice handover.
The former John Taylor, who was Home Affairs Minister when Stormont last had policing and justice controls almost 40 years ago, said he understood his party's concerns over the stalemate on academic selection but they should not have been linked to the justice issue.
Mr Dodds said UUP leader Sir Reg Empey had achieved a rare feat “splitting his own party and splitting from the Tories also. It takes a rare skill for a single person to split an organisation into three. Reg has done it.
“(Conservative leader David) Cameron backed the deal. Empey voted against it. Lord Kilclooney says Empey was wrong. It is clear that Lord Kilclooney is reflecting what many within the UUP Assembly group and wider membership are saying. (They) will try to hide it using anti-DUP language, but the cold reality is that they are bitterly divided and incapable of providing leadership.”
But senior UUP MLA David McNarry insisted: “We came under no pressure from our Conservative and Unionist allies. There is a unity of purpose between us working to bring unionism right into the heart of national Government.
“Clearly the DUP have consummated their political marriage to Sinn Fein and in doing so ditched the prospect of unionist unity. But at what price? Freezing out fellow unionists, overloading the already malfunctioning Executive and turning it into a dysfunctional liability.”
But TUV leader Jim Allister argued the credibility of the DUP was in tatters. “At least the Ulster Unionists had the self-respect and dignity to stand their ground, despite a maelstrom of orchestrated and obscene pressure. By stooping to these levels the DUP and others showed their desperation,” he said.
To which the DUP’s Ian Paisley jnr, due to defend his father’s North Antrim seat against Mr Allister, retorted that the TUV leader had swallowed Sinn Fein arguments and could only offer abuse. “Every outburst shows just how unsuitable to leadership Jim Allister is,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Robinson, pointing out the likely May 6 General Election date leaves only 40 days for nominations, said: “With a hung Parliament an increasing possibility, the number of unionists returned to Westminster will be absolutely crucial in securing the best possible deal for the people of Northern Ireland.
A hung Parliament could offer unionists a once in a lifetime opportunity to make key strategic gains.”