Sinn Féin has opposed a unionist proposal to erect a stone at Stormont to mark the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland despite all four other main Northern parties agreeing to the project.
The three main unionist leaders – Arlene Foster of the DUP, Steve Aiken of the Ulster Unionist Party and Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice – said Sinn Féin's vetoing of the project demonstrated how "much more oppressive" it would be were unionists ever to be "so foolish" as to agree to a united Ireland.
Sinn Féin said the party had not been contacted about the matter and that proposal represented only one political perspective. Assembly member Pat Sheehan said that the "the days of unionism jumping up and down and stamping their feet and getting what they want are gone".
The proposal was to erect the stone just to the west of Parliament Buildings within the cartilage or ambit of the building.
It was to have a granite base and be made of Portland stone representing the six counties in Northern Ireland.
It was to have a simple inscription: “Erected to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland 1921-2021.”
It was to be made by stone specialists S McConnell and Sons from Kilkeel, Co Down, whose other significant projects include work on the Omagh bombing memorial garden, Diana fountain in London, Bomber Command memorial, also in London, restoration of the Guildhall in Derry and work to the visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway in Co Antrim.
The proposal went before the Assembly Commission but, unionist leaders complained, it was vetoed by Sinn Féin. Unionists are now taking their case to the Department of Finance which has responsibility for the Stormont estate and whose Minister is Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy.
“We are dismayed by the refusal of the commission to permit this project, which would not have cost the public purse as our respective parties and MLAs were committed to funding it,” said Ms Foster, Mr Aiken and Mr Allister in a joint statement.
“The refusal arises from the shameful exercise of a veto by Sinn Féin. Yet this is the party that talks most about respect for all communities, but when a modest proposal was made on behalf of the wider unionist community it was callously vetoed,” they added.
“Those we represent are left to ponder that if this is how we are treated in our own land, just how much more oppressive would our treatment be if we were ever so foolish as to consent to the ‘New Ireland’ that these same deniers of respect seek to promote,” said the unionist leaders.
‘One political perspective’
Sinn Féin responded that unionist parties should first have discussed the proposal for the centenary stone with other political parties.
“Unfortunately, the proposed stone has been designed and commissioned by representatives of one tradition and reflects only one political perspective,” said Mr Sheehan.
“In that sense the centenary stone proposal is symbolic of the past failures of political unionism and of this state. Those past failures are certainly not a template for the future and for this reason Sinn Féin does not agree to the proposed centenary stone,” he added.
Mr Sheehan also told the BBC that the unionist parties had not consulted his party about the proposal.
The SDLP and Alliance endorsed the stone proposal. “In a spirit of generosity we were . . . supportive of the proposal which would have come at no cost to taxpayers and clearly had a great deal of meaning for unionists,” said a SDLP spokesman.
An Alliance spokeswoman said the party had “supported the proposal for a centenary memorial stone, a modest plan to commemorate a significant event”.
The row over the stone comes shortly after Sinn Féin speaker Alex Maskey praised the five main parties for agreeing a series of events through 2021 to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.