A ferocious argument between DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell and Martin McGuinness ended an Executive meeting at which big issues such as welfare reform were not even on the agenda.
The hour-long meeting on Thursday afternoon descended into scenes which suggest even a deeply divided Executive appears to have reached new depths.
Speaking publicly yesterday morning, Alliance minister Stephen Farry admitted it had been “a difficult meeting with frank exchanges”, while last night UUP minister Danny Kennedy told BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme that there was now a “toxic” relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein which was impacting on Executive business.
It is understood that the meeting concluded its business – which was fairly brief given that the agenda did not include the big unsolved issues such as welfare reform and the future of the Single Farm Payment – and then moved into ‘any other business’ before the real argument began.
Members of the Executive had to indicate that they wish to raise an issue under ‘any other business’ and, once Sinn Fein raised the issue of racial tensions, the DUP tabled a discussion on support for the police.
During the debate on racial tensions, it is understood that Mr McGuinness was critical of Pastor James McConnell’s comments and Mr Robinson’s support for the pastor.
The Alliance Party, SDLP and UUP also raised concerns, either about the language used by Mr McConnell, or Mr Robinson’s intervention, while the DUP defended him.
Mr Robinson spoke in defence of his own position before the conversation moved to support for policing and the debate became more heated.
There were sharp exchanges over Mr McGuinness’s suggestion that ‘dark forces’ within the PSNI were attempting to damage Sinn Fein. DUP and UUP ministers tangled with Mr McGuinness, who was reportedly accused by Mr Kennedy of leaving Sinn Fein’s Policing Board members in an “outrageous position”.
Eventually, a source said, the meeting broke up because of a “shouting match between Jonathan Bell and Martin McGuinness” over the murder of Jean McConville.
It is understood that Mr Bell repeatedly and loudly put it to Mr McGuinness: “Do you condemn it?” to which Mr McGuinness responded by asking if Mr Bell condemned “the murder of 14 innocent people on Bloody Sunday”.
Although some of the biggest decisions facing the Executive were not on the agenda, it is understood that welfare reform was raised under ‘any other business’.