Martin McGuinness has acknowledged there are difficulties in his working relationship with Peter Robinson as he rejected the First Minister’s claim he was acting like a dictator over the stalled Haass proposals.
Stormont’s leaders are at loggerheads over the political impasse on a draft deal to resolve outstanding peace process issues and, in particular, Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness’s assertion that unionist politicians are reluctant to do business because they are in the thrall of loyalist extremists.
Former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass, who chaired a six-month talks process in a bid to find agreement on long-standing disputes over flags, parades and dealing with the past, has proposed a blueprint for dealing with all three.
While Sinn Fein and the SDLP want to implement the Haass document as it stands, the DUP and UUP want significant elements re-negotiated. The Alliance party want the plan implemented but want to make what, it insists, are necessary changes as it goes through the legislative stages at Stormont.
With recent meetings between the five party leaders yet to secure a breakthrough, Mr McGuinness today said he felt if progress was not made in the next three weeks or so, then a deal might not be reached.
“My sense of it is if we are not going to see progress over the course of the next three weeks or so it is very unlikely we are going to see anything after that,” he said.
Mr Robinson reacted angrily last week when Mr McGuinness accused the main unionist parties of being overly influenced by extremists.
To demonstrate his point the Sinn Fein veteran had reiterated his allegation that the Orange Order in Belfast - an organisation whose buy-in the DUP has stressed is vital for any deal - had been heavily infiltrated by the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and its political associates the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).
Mr McGuinness claimed unionist leaders privately acknowledged to him that the Orange Order, UVF and PUP were effectively “one and the same thing” as he urged them to show leadership and implement the Haass document without delay.
In response, Mr Robinson claimed Mr McGuinness had a “visceral hatred” of the Orange institution and was acting like a “dictator” by demanding other politicians accept his view on how to move forward with the Haass proposals.
Mr McGuinness dismissed that interpretation today.
“I have to say I don’t think anybody who knows me believes for one minute that I am a dictator of any sort, I haven’t got that sort of personality,” he said.
Asked to assess his working relationship with Mr Robinson, he added: “There is a particular difficulty over the conversations and the interviews of the last number of weeks. The reality is that everybody within the political process knows that the Orange Order in Belfast, particularly in north Belfast, has been hijacked by the Ulster Volunteer Force and by the PUP.
“I am not going to back down from that and in fact the challenge really isn’t for me - the challenge is for those who are not prepared to publicly state what they know to be true themselves.
“And I do believe that as I have stood against so-called republican dissidents, (in) some of the most very difficult circumstances for republicans - stood alongside chief constables and first ministers to unreservedly to condemn the activities of so called dissident republicans - I don’t think it is too much to expect that whenever the peace process is being attacked by extreme loyalists that unionists politicians will stand with me.
“Did unionist politicians stand with me over the last 18 months? The answer to that is no. And I am not going to back down from that.”
Mr Robinson, who today attended a youth event in Belfast alongside Mr McGuinness, insisted that his counterpart in Stormont Castle did not control the timetable of the process.
“This issue does not go away in three weeks time,” said the DUP leader.
“It has to be resolved, whether it’s three weeks, or three months or three years - we have to keep at it until we get it resolved, so I don’t accept any deadline given by anybody.”
He added: “What is required is for people to agree with each other, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree with Martin McGuinness. So yes, there are outstanding issues, they have to be resolved, it doesn’t get resolved until there is an agreement amongst the parties, it can be difficult, particularly difficult when there are five parties involved. Yes it can be resolved but I am not going to hold myself to any deadline, I want to see it resolved and I want to see it resolved as soon as possible.”
Mr Robinson said at one of the meetings between the five parties, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt had challenged Mr McGuinness on the claim that unionist leadership figures had privately acknowledged his claim about the Orange Order.
“I think he knows that is not the case,” the First Minister claimed.
“He indicated neither Mike or myself were the people who made that remark. I just don’t think it is accurate, I don’t think it is helpful and I want to see the progress that can be made through this dialogue we are having, and I think it is unhelpful for people to try and set it back.”
The two ministers were at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast for a United Youth Programme event - an initiative that forms part of their strategy for bringing Northern Ireland’s divided communities together.
The programme is designed to give young people who are not in education, employment or training the opportunity to take part in work experience, volunteering and leisure opportunities while focusing on good relations and building relations across the traditional divide.
Mr Robinson was asked what message his recent spat with Mr McGuinness sent out to young people from differing backgrounds.
“I think it shows that in society you can have differences and still work together,” he said.
“I think that is a good message to give to young people.”