The DUP and Sinn Fein have firmly turned their fire on the Ulster Unionists for quitting the Stormont Executive.
In a move which could indicate that the DUP is preparing the ground to stay in the Executive despite claims IRA members have been involved in murder, the party released a 650-word statement which savaged Mike Nesbitt’s decision to walk away from the Executive table.
One DUP source privately said that it was inconceivable for the party to stay in the Executive in the current circumstances.
In the absence of Peter Robinson, who has been out of the country on holiday this week, the DUP has been keeping its options open.
However, in its only statement on the issue on Friday, the DUP appeared to shift focus and lacerate the UUP for walking away from the Executive.
In the statement, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said that Mr Nesbitt’s decision – which is expected to be formally ratified on Saturday night by the UUP’s executive – was “riddled with hypocrisy and has been repeatedly exposed for its inconsistency”.
But former DUP MLA Paul Berry said the party would have ridiculed David Trimble if he had acted as it is now acting, something he said was motivated by a fear of losing lucrative Assembly money.
Mr Berry, now an independent Armagh councillor, said that the party had “lambasted every unionist leader over the years for being Lundies and traitors and now they’re caught”.
He said: “I have no doubt that if this happened 15 years ago when David Trimble and the UUP were in charge, the DUP would have been protesting at the gates demanding the Assembly to fall.
“In 1998, the DUP’s key team had the House of Commons to fall back on. It’s clear the key figures now are within the Assembly and their careers could end, politically, if this falls – that may be a key factor.”
Mr Wilson said that the UUP decision had no implications for devolution and said the DUP was “focused on punishing republicans”.
Mr Wilson said of the DUP’s unionist rival: “They have been incapable of dodging the reality that their actions fail to punish Sinn Fein. With no other sensible rationale, the UUP has resorted to one attack after another on the DUP proving that this is nothing more than a selfish party political stunt.”
He added: “Setting aside the historical inconsistencies of the UUP saying they won’t sit with Sinn Fein, this latest move by Mike is riddled with present day foolishness and hypocrisy.
“For any UUP spokesman, let alone the party’s leader, to say they base their entire decision on devolution on the word of Sinn Fein is every bit as crazy as David Trimble telling Gerry Adams ‘we’ve jumped, you follow’. Clearly Mike Nesbitt learned nothing from the Trimble years.”
In a speech entirely focused on attacking the UUP’s decision, the former finance minister said that the UUP decision had “no impact on the continuance of devolution and has even less impact on Sinn Fein”.
He added: “Indeed, I would challenge Mike Nesbitt to explain how his party’s tactic puts any pressure on republicans. The UUP’s decision to leave government is cowardly rather than courageous and self-serving rather than selfless. It is premature and opportunistic. This is a time for sensible leadership not knee-jerk reactions.”
And, amid unease from some DUP members at the party’s continued presence in government with republicans at a time when IRA members are alleged to have access to guns and have used them to murder, Mr Wilson said: “Our decision to enter government was based on proper security assessments rather than the words of Sinn Fein.”
The DUP is expected to meet Prime Minister David Cameron next week.
The party was joined in its attack on the UUP by Sinn Fein, whose MLA Conor Murphy derided Mr Nesbitt’s “cunning plan”, which he said was a “road to no town”.
Meanwhile, amid continued concerns that the recent bloody republican feud could lead to more murders, Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey said that he was aware of “threats and counter threats being issued over the deaths of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan”.
Calling on the unspecified individuals responsible to desist from such actions, the former IRA man said: “The only way to get justice for the McGuigan and Davison families is to allow the PSNI to carry out a thorough investigation into their murders.
“I am aware of heightened tensions in the area as rumours of threats and counter threats are circulating and these threats only add further hurt and trauma to all those involved with the families and are counter-productive to any investigation.
“This is a time for calm heads and anyone who thinks that taking the law into their own hands will resolve the situation are mistaken as they will only add to the grief of both families.”
On Friday morning the PSNI arrested – and later released unconditionally – a 28-year-old man “in connection with the overall investigation into the murder of Jock Davison”.