The North’s leading politicians Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness promised a new spirit of partnership today, despite their famously frosty relationship.
Both men said they had been divided on issues in the past but were now focused on delivering on the promises of the Hillsborough deal that carved out new accommodations on policing, justice and parades.
But they were critical of the sceptical attitude of the smaller parties who sit in the power-sharing government alongside the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin, and urged them to back the new political agreement.
Mr McGuinness said: “There is overwhelming support, I believe, despite the protestations of the SDLP. People want to see us press on.”
He added: “We are very conscious of the need to have an inclusive process, but it requires others to want to be included. And I think that is the key point as we move forward.”
Mr McGuinness, who had previously blamed Mr Robinson for the pair’s poor working relationship, indicated that a new beginning had been made at Hillsborough.
The Sinn Féin representative said: “Peter and I are prepared to work together. We have had difficulties in the past. As far as I am concerned they are in the past.”
Mr Robinson said: “We would be the first to put our hands up and say the issue of policing and justice has been toxic in OFMDFM (the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister).
“It has held back a lot of other work.”
But the DUP leader said there was a focus now on delivering on the devolution of policing and justice, and on implementing a new beginning to the overseeing of parades.
All parties in the Executive would, he said, be privy to the conclusions of a working group due to report within days on a new system for securing local accommodation on problem marches.
He repeated Mr McGuinness’s belief that there was huge public support for the deal and said this was being echoed by his own DUP rank and file members.
Mr Robinson said in a series of internal meetings around Northern Ireland he found strong DUP support for the deal.
“On every occasion (I am) getting not just overwhelming, but complete support from our party membership for the agreement that has been reached,” he said.
The First Minister said the deal was much more wide ranging than many thought possible and involved not only policing, justice and parades, but also envisaged a fresh effort to resolve outstanding issues around the Stormont Executive table.
And while the SDLP has said it is being excluded from the future role of Justice Minister to be created under devolution, the Ulster Unionist Party has demanded a resolution to the long-running controversy over school transfer tests as its price for supporting the Hillsborough agreement.
Mr Robinson said he hoped to reach accommodations on policy differences such as education, or to at least avoid further crises developing.
But he said Conservative leader David Cameron supported the Hillsborough deal and noted that the Tories are in an electoral pact with the UUP.
The First Minister also asked whether Conservative Party and UUP views on academic selection might clash when their general election manifestos were launched.
But Mr Robinson reserved his sharpest criticism for the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party and its leader Jim Allister, who has promised to eat into the DUP support base in the election.
Mr Allister, who today announced his intention to stand in Ian Paisley’s North Antrim heartland in the general election, has branded the Hillsborough deal as a sell-out by the DUP.
The First Minister said: “I believe that the commander in chief of the dissident unionists has been unable to land a glove on us on this issue.
“I think that people, quite frankly, are tired of him and they recognise he has nothing to offer and nowhere to take them.”
Mr Robinson said he believed a silent majority of people backed the deal, and he asked them to speak out as loudly as those opposed to it.
But Mr Allister promised to challenge the DUP on its partnership with Sinn Féin, on the Hillsborough accord and on wider issues.
The TUV leader said: “Of course this campaign will be about the big political issues of the day, including the DUP’s roll-over at Hillsborough and Ian Paisley’s bequeathing terrorist-inclusive government to Northern Ireland, but it will also be about the very important matter of restoring to North Antrim present and effective representation in the House of Commons, not least on the bread and butter issues needing attention in this constituency in these hard economic times.”
He added: “Of course, the electoral challenge of overturning one of the biggest majorities in the country is significant, but I believe the solid traditional unionist principles which TUV now represents are exactly those which hitherto North Antrim so strongly embraced.”