A Sinn Fein prison visit to meet one of the men convicted of the dissident republican murder of a policeman in Northern Ireland was a publicity stunt that has caused much pain and anguish, the first minister has said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster urged her partners in government to reflect on the decision to send a delegation into Maghaberry high security prison to meet Brendan McConville and another republican inmate.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness defended the visit, insisting parties from all traditions in Northern Ireland had a responsibility to listen to those who lobbied them.
McConville and John Paul Wootton were found guilty in 2012 of the Continuity IRA murder of Constable Stephen Carroll in Lurgan in March 2009.
The men have been engaged in a long campaign to overturn their convictions. An appeal was dismissed in 2014 and the men are now hoping to have the evidence against them examined by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Mr Carroll’s widow Kate expressed hurt and anger when it emerged that three Sinn Fein members of Stormont’s justice committee – Declan Kearney, Pat Sheehan and Michaela Boyle – met McConville inside Maghaberry last week to discuss his case.
Mrs Foster said while the party was entitled to question judicial issues she branded the visit as nothing more than a stunt aimed at shoring up support among hard-line republicans.
“I think it was a Sinn Fein publicity stunt, I think that’s very clear, but in their stunt they have caused a lot of pain, a lot of anguish, particularly to Kate Carroll, and they should reflect on that, but unfortunately they don’t seem to take into consideration the pain and anguish that they caused by their publicity stunt,” she said.
“They are trying to appeal to elements of their constituency which they are clearly concerned about at the moment.
“That is a matter for them but I think they should very much reflect on the fact that they have caused a lot of pain and a lot anguish.”
Mr McGuinness described Mrs Carroll as a “wonderful human being” and said he had “tremendous respect” for her.
But he said politicians had a responsibility to listen to those lobbying them.
“I have great time for Kate Carroll,” he said.
“I think she is a wonderful human being, I met her at the time of the murder of her husband which was a cruel and foul deed by those who would try to plunge us back to the past, so all my sympathies are with her.
“At the same time if you look at the situation in the north of Ireland over the course of the last 20 to 30 years politicians from all sides, both unionist, nationalist and republican, have been lobbied by people where concerns have been expressed around the quality of a conviction.
“So there is a responsibility on politicians whenever they are lobbied to play their part to ensure they are in full possession of all of the facts.”
Mr McGuinness said the DUP had in the past advocated for people serving jail sentences.
“I don’t think we should turn this into a party political dispute,” he added.
“The reality is that Kate Carroll lost her husband, all of my sympathies are with her, and I think in the context of the visit to Maghberry it is quite obvious that politicians from all sides have been to Maghberry over the course of a number of years.”