Recent violent unrest in Northern Ireland has posed a real challenge to the political institutions, the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said.
Loyalist trouble which has left hundreds of police officers injured combined with a decision by the Democratic Unionist Party to veto the building of a peace centre on the site of a former prison have created tensions in the power-sharing administration.
Mr McGuinness said: “That represents a real challenge to these institutions. It is not the first time that the institutions have been challenged.
“Serious questions have to be asked about the response of unionist leaders to the activities on the streets, particularly 56 police officers injured...by the riot in Belfast city centre.”
Days of violence followed the banning of a controversial loyal order parade through a contested part of North Belfast in July and that spilled over into the main commercial thoroughfare Royal Avenue when Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers were attacked with scaffolding and glasses from a nearby bar.
Former US envoy Richard Haass is chairing five-party talks on parades, emblems and dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict.
Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt said Mr McGuinness’ use of the phrase “extreme loyalists”, whose combined efforts with the UUP he said led to the DUP’s U-turn on the project, was “deeply offensive”.
Mr Nesbitt said: “Our key partners were the innocent victims’ groups, prison officers, the UDR Regimental Association, the RUC George Cross Association and RUC widows. To call the widows of police officers ‘extreme loyalists’ is not only wrong, it is deeply offensive and brings the office of the deputy First Minister into disrepute.
“I understand Martin McGuinness does not like what has happened with the so-called Peace Centre, but this use of language is not acceptable and suggests he is in denial concerning the fact that significant sections of our community who could not be reasonably described as other than moderate, are totally opposed to these plans.
“This regrettable statement follows an assertion that politicians were using victims for their selfish political ends, ignoring how he supported the creation of victims for political ends in the first place.
“We cannot go on like this. Honesty must underpin our political processes.”