Ruth Kelly and Peter Hain are at loggerheads over the introduction of new rules barring discrimination against LGBT people.
Regulations making it illegal to refuse goods or services on the grounds of sexual orientation are being introduced in Northern Ireland before England, coming into force on January 1st.
As the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, decisions about the province are taken by the Secretary of State, Peter Hain. He has imposed tough rules, with no exemptions for religious groups.
The introduction of regulations has been delayed in England and Wales until April by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, and she intends to grant exemptions.
The Independent reports that a row has broken out within the Cabinet, with Kelly demanding that the Northern Ireland regulations be delayed until a common position can be found.
Hain is said to have pushed ahead and used his powers to impose stricter regulations in Northern Ireland because he feared delay would mean the regulations would be considered by a new Assembly dominated by the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democraic Unionist Party.
The Unionists are fundamentally opposed to gay rights and would have almost certainly voted down the regulations.
Both sides claim the other is acting with an ulterior motive. Hain, a candidate for deputy leader, is accused of flexing his muscles to impress Labour party members, and DUP MPs have called for him to delay the regulations.
Kelly, a devout Catholic, is accused of being a closet homophobe and pandering to the Catholic Church in granting them exemptions based on prejudice.
The new regulations were a manifesto commitment and Kelly has come under sustained attack from gay rights activists for attempting to water them down.
In Northern Ireland there is confusion as to the extent of the tough new regulations, with Christian groups claiming that gays will be allowed to harass Christians about their beliefs but gays will have legal protection from harassment.
The Christian Institute, a charity notorious for its opposition to gay rights, has said it is considering asking for a judicial review of the new regulations.
The director, Colin Hart, told The Independent: “Peter Hain talks about equality. But he should read his own regulations, which elevate gay rights above all other rights for religious people, and rights on the grounds of age, sex and disability. It is a preferential status which will drive a coach and horses through religious liberty.”