A war of words broke out today over moves towards an electoral pact between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists.
With crunch talks taking place to save Stormont from collapse, unionists and nationalists traded blows over the prospect of increased unionist co-operation aimed at preventing Martin McGuinness from becoming First Minister.
SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell has warned against the “playing of an Orange card” – a claim dismissed today by the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr as “hypocritical”. There was also growing speculation the link-up between the UUP and Conservatives could be under threat as a result of talks with the DUP on co-operation.
The prospect of a unionist pact has already resulted in three prospective Tory candidates withdrawing their names and thrown the selection of joint Ulster Unionist and Conservative candidates for the Westminster election into further disarray. Mr McDonnell accused Tory leader David Cameron of trying to exploit the current crisis over policing and justice.
The South Belfast MP, whose seat would be under threat if there was an agreed unionist candidate, said he was demanding a meeting with Mr Cameron over Tory “naked sectarian play of the Orange card”.
“No one is buying the Tory line that this secret all unionist meeting was an attempt to overcome political instabilities here,” he said. “If this was the genuine motivation then why haven’t the Tories met with the nationalist parties?
“All this meeting has served to do is show contempt for nationalists and add further confusion, mistrust and suspicion into the political process. The SDLP will not allow David Cameron to exploit the policing and justice crisis and reopen old wounds to further his own petty political ends.”
The DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr said the SDLP’s “anger” should act as a spur to increased unionist unity, with further meetings between his party and Ulster Unionists likely following ‘secret’ talks chaired by the Tories in England last week.
He added: “The yelps of anger emerging from the ranks of the SDLP complaining about unionist unity is nothing short of hypocritical. Not so long ago the SDLP joined forces with the Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to make a pan Nationalist front in order to take power in Ireland.
“The reaction tells its own story and should be a further signal to unionists that in unity we have strength as nationalism and its objectives will be further diminished. The allegations of old Orange card are nothing but a smokescreen to cover the anger that certain nationalists will have when they realise their political careers are over because they were based on the false dawn of a split unionist vote.”
His party colleague Sammy Wilson, who has been closely involved in the negotiations over policing, justice and parading, said the recent talks at Hatfield House chaired by Conservative shadow secretary of state Owen Paterson could prove historic.
Writing in his News Letter column today, he admitted there would be many obstacles, not least the political warfare between the two parties, which would make cooperation difficult for some but the prize to be gained is “enormous”.
A UUP spokesman said the final joint selection meeting to choose candidates nominated by each party had been due to take place this week, but the resignation of the Tories had thrown plans into chaos.
UU leader Sir Reg Empey yesterday denied the link-up with the Conservatives is in tatters.