Continuing controversy over the Northern Ireland protocol has triggered edgy exchanges in the Northern Assembly between First Minister Arlene Foster and senior Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd.
Ms Foster said politicians should avoid "cant" after former education minister Mr O'Dowd criticised her for recently meeting the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – which represents the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando – to discuss loyalist/unionist opposition to the protocol and checks on some goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr O’Dowd said the Northern Executive was engaged in attempts to eradicate paramilitarism. “Do you not think the fact that you met with representatives of these gangs that are actively involved now in criminality, drug dealing and murder undermines the message from the Executive?” he asked Ms Foster.
Ms Foster replied that she held no such view as the LCC representatives she met were committed to “peaceful and democratic” means of advancing their beliefs.
“I find it astounding to hear criticism from Sinn Féin when the [IRA] army council is still in existence. That is not my assessment, that is the assessment of the chief constable of the PSNI [Simon Byrne],” she added.
“It is very hard to take criticism from sources that should know better. What we want to do is to encourage everybody to engage in peaceful and constitutional politics . . . It really is astounding to hear members of Sinn Féin come out and criticise this party which has always condemned violence of any source,” she continued.
Opposed to criminality
Mr O’Dowd responded that Ms Foster would be “aware that this is not the first occasion that political unionism has sought common cause with armed loyalist groups. These groups are actively involved today in crimes largely against the communities which the DUP represents and unionism represents. You sat down with them not seeking them to go away, you sat down with them seeking common cause in your opposition against the protocol. Do you not believe that was a mistake?”
Ms Foster said Mr O’Dowd did not know what she had said to the communities council.
“I have always been very clear with members of paramilitary organisations, from wherever they come from, that they should cease and desist from their criminality,” said the First Minister.
Ms Foster asked Mr O’Dowd was he suggesting that the Northern Executive should move away from the “communities in transition” programme that it was running and which was doing very good work in loyalist and republican areas.
“Let’s have less of the cant and hypocrisy in this house and let’s have some realism,” she added.