RHODRI MORGAN embarrassed Tony Blair and Peter Hain by telling a tasteless sectarian joke about the death of Ian Paisley, it can be revealed.
Last night the First Minister was condemned from all sides for making what opposition politicians described as the latest in a string of gaffes.
Details only emerged yesterday of what Mr Morgan said during a dinner at the Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno last Thursday.
He made the joke about the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the company of the Prime Minister, who has been trying to build bridges in Northern Ireland for a decade.
Also present was Wales and Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who has been leading the delicate efforts to restore the stalled peace process.
Witnesses say that both the Prime Minister and Mr Hain visibly cringed as Mr Morgan slipped a joke into his speech. "Did you hear about Ian Paisley's death bed conversion to Catholicism," quipped the First Minister. "He thought it was better to have a dead Catholic than a dead Protestant."
Mr Paisley, pictured left, is likely to become First Minister of Northern Ireland after next month's Assembly election in the province. A longstanding opponent of Irish republicanism, he will be 81 in April.
Mr Hain would not comment on Mr Morgan's joke. But it is clear that both he and Mr Blair were aghast at the insensitivity of it.
A spokeswoman for Mr Morgan said, "The joke used by the First Minister is an old one, which has been doing the rounds for a long time. He certainly did not intend it to cause offence."
But Welsh Conservative Assembly leader in the National Assembly Nick Bourne said, "Rhodri Morgan likes to play the role of court jester to his leader Tony Blair but this is simply unacceptable.
"The political process in Northern Ireland is at a very sensitive stage and he should apologise immediately for such an offensive, ill-judged remark.
"Once again Rhodri Morgan has proved to be an embarrassment to the Labour Party, to the National Assembly, and to Wales.
"This is not the sort of behaviour people expect from a person holding the title of First Minister."
Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan said, "Rhodri Morgan's judgment appears to be deeply flawed and reveals a distasteful side to his nature which most people will find offensive.
"Wales expects more from their First Minister. Tasteless, hurtful jokes such as this have no place in the modern political arena."
Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly leader Mike German said, "An important part of the First Minister's role is to be an ambassador for Wales. He has a responsibility and a duty to represent the values of the country and to live up to the standards people in Wales expect at all times. To many people around the world, the First Minister is the face and voice of Wales.
"This joke is the latest in a long line of gaffes which have dogged his time as First Minister. I'm normally all in favour of recycling - but this old chestnut should have been left in the dustbin of comedy history. It isn't even funny.
"All public figures make light- hearted remarks as part of after dinner speeches, but the desire to amuse must take account of the audience and the likelihood of offence being taken. The First Minister is Wales's ambassador, and he should have known better."
Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones was attending his mother- in-law's funeral yesterday and unavailable for comment.
But the party's Helen Mary Jones, a former Deputy Director of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said, "Such comments are unacceptable, especially from the First Minister. They are offensive and are an embarrassment to the people he is supposed to represent.
"It is amazing that Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, or the Prime Minister didn't walk out in disgust considering the sensitive stage of the peace process in Northern Ireland. There is no room for such bigotry in politics from anyone, let alone the First Minister."
In Northern Ireland, a spokesman for Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party said, "Dr Paisley himself will not be commenting on this, but so far as the party is concerned, the nature of the joke was in very poor taste and offensive. It is certainly not what we would expect from the First Minister of Wales, with whom we would hope to have a good relationship as the head of another devolved administration.
"Dr Paisley has a large following in the province and is a respected parliamentarian. It is most inappropriate for the First Minister of Wales to have made these remarks, and we hope he chooses his words more carefully in the future."
Today Mr Morgan is due to welcome the American Ambassador to the Senedd and on Friday he will be delivering a speech to businessmen at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Earlier this month, the First Minister said during an interview with the Western Mail that people should accept him as he is, and that it was too late for him to change.