A spat between two high-profile Democratic Unionist veterans over a poll on Irish unity has deepened.
Former party leader and first minister Peter Robinson and East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson are at odds over Mr Robinson’s suggestion last week that unionists should make preparations in case a border referendum is called in the future.
Mr Wilson accused him of giving encouragement to the republican cause by even countenancing the possibility of a vote.
Former East Belfast MP Mr Robinson responded in robust terms on Friday. While not mentioning Mr Wilson by name, he said unionists who said the issue should not be discussed were talking “claptrap” and were guilty of “crass folly”.
“These people have not just buried their heads in the sand, only the soles of their feet are visible above the surface,” he said.
Mr Robinson insisted the “battle for the union” was on, whether fellow unionists liked it or not.
“Not only are they advising us not to talk about a border poll, but they don’t want us to even talk about the subject matter at the heart of such a poll,” he added in an opinion piece in the Belfast Telegraph.
“Do they not realise that the battle is raging? We live in a society divided by identity, so to some extent the union is always under fire. But surely, nobody could be so chloroformed that they don’t recognise that the opponents of the union are charging our lines like seldom before. The battle for the union is on.
“Just as unionists cannot stop a border poll from happening, neither can they control when our opponents launch their assault on our constitutional status. Pulling a paper bag over our heads and thinking that we can thereby close out the impending danger is crazy.
“While those who are still in denial and refusing to talk about the elephant in the room... it is positioning itself to squat upon their laps.”
The episode has unfolded almost three years after a retiring Mr Robinson publicly sided with Arlene Foster when Mr Wilson indicated he might run against her in a contest to succeed him as party leader.
Responding to Mr Robinson’s latest comments, Mr Wilson described him as a “formidable advocate” for the union, but said on the issue of a poll he was “just plain wrong”.
The MP denied he was burying his head in the sand or “digging a defensive foxhole”.
“It is not enough to say that a referendum is coming, so prepare the terms in case we lose,” he said.
“Churchill knew that the Nazis were coming after Britain when they defeated France in 1940 but he didn’t prepare terms for the event of a successful invasion, he rallied the people by telling them to prepare to fight on the beaches and in laneways and in the street and to never surrender.
“That’s a far better strategy and that is what I am hearing from unionists who I speak to and who are alarmed at the talk of an inevitable referendum and the possibility of losing it.”
Mr Wilson said Mr Robinson had led the fight for the union against “impossible odds” in the past.
But he added: “He was a formidable advocate for the union and still is, but his current analysis of what unionists should be doing is just plain wrong.”