The coming election has nothing to do with the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme and is instead about prosecuting ex-soldiers and furthering a republican agenda, the DUP deputy leader has claimed.
Nigel Dodds made the remarks in the House of Commons on Tuesday, as the Secretary of State James Brokenshire urged Northern Irish parties to behave “respectfully” during their ballot box campaigns.
Mr Dodds said the further pursuit of ex-military men over crimes committed during the Troubles was one of the objectives of Sinn Fein’s decision to trigger the new election, which set to be held on March 2 this year.
As he and other MPs aired their concerns in the House of Commons on Tuesday a number of statements were sent through to the News Letter, including one from the Methodist Church (calling on candidates to act “generously”), and one from the US government (voicing support for devolved power-sharing).
Opening the debate, Mr Brokenshire rose to tell MPs that whilst elections are, by their nature, “hotly contested” it is “vital for the campaign to be conducted respectfully”.
After it is over, he said: “I am not contemplating any outcome other than the re-establishment of strong and stable devolved government...
“Northern Ireland has come so far, and we cannot allow the gains that have been made to be derailed.”
Nigel Dodds, MP for North Belfast, then told the House: “What is the election about? It is fairly clear that it is not about the RHI issue; had it been, we could have got on with sorting it out.
“Indeed, the election will serve to disrupt and delay sorting out those issues.
“The election is about Sinn Fein seeking opportune political advantage, seeking to overturn the result of the election held just a few months ago, seeking to gain a list of concessions from the Government on legacy issues, such as rewriting the past and putting more soldiers and policemen in the dock, and other issues, and seeking other concessions from the DUP.”
Kevin Foster, Conservative MP for Torbay, also picked up on this theme.
He asked the Secretary of State if he agreed that work must be done to ensure that “in dealing with the legacies of the past... those who put their lives on the line to defend this democracy are not unduly hounded”.
Mr Brokenshire replied that he is “concerned that there is an imbalance in the system, with a focus on state-based actors”, but added that “the Stormont House agreement and the legacy institutions contemplated within that provide a real framework and way forward”.
However, there has been no agreement in over two years between Sinn Fein and the DUP about whether measures in that agreement will actually be adopted.
They include the major step of setting up a Historic Investigations Unit, separate from the PSNI, to crack old Troubles cases.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson last week said the HIU would be bigger than the PSNI’s existing Legacy Investigations Unit, and would be funded separately by cash from Westminster – but that Sinn Fein has effectively blocked it.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson demanded to know if Mr Brokenshire would commit “that there will be no money for politically motivated inquests”.
Mr Brokenshire gave no such commitment in his response, but said “on the issue of legacy, it is important that we are able to find a way forward that is more balanced”.
Ex-SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell MP said that without the Westminster government starting a public inquiry into RHI itself, or at least lending its support to one, public faith in devolved politics will “sink even lower”.
Mr Brokenshire said when it comes to getting answers “it is right for that to come from Northern Ireland, as much as is possible”, but that he is “ready to work with people and consider options on a cross-community basis”.
Pressed on this by the DUP’s Mr Donaldson, he said: “I remain open to considering issues that command cross-community support in order to find answers and get to the root of the issues in respect of the RHI inquiry.”
In a statement later in the afternoon, North Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly accused the UK government of blocking legacy mechanisms, adding: “The Lord Chief Justice has asked repeatedly for funds for legacy inquests.”
Such cash should be released “immediately”, he said.
UUP MP Danny Kinahan said in a statment that when it comes to the election, it “must not be assumed that the electorate is inherently loyal to the DUP/SF partnership that presided over a decade of scandal and incompetence... It is abundantly clear that the DUP and Sinn Fein are incapable of governing together.”
A statement from the US consulate during the afternoon said “we urge all political parties to focus on quickly finding a way forward to the resumption of stable devolved governance”.
Meanwhile, a statement from Bill Mullaly, president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, noted that Arlene Foster has predicted the election will be “brutal”, and urged calm.
He called on all candidates to focus on five things – “restoration of trust; acting generously; accepting responsibility; being accountable; and seeking the common good”.