Defiant IRA hints at an end to ceasefire

THE IRA issued a thinly veiled threat last night to end its ceasefire if the Unionists continue their demands for a "surrender" without delivering a share of power in Ulster to Sinn Fein.

The IRA's hardline statement stopped short of an explicit threat to return to violence and will be seen as part of the tough bargaining, but the Unionists will regard it as clear evidence that the IRA is not ready to give up its weapons.

It substantially raised the stakes for the former US senator, George Mitchell, in the role of honest broker. It came after his first meeting with the opposing parties in Belfast yesterday showed they were as entrenched as ever. The message was clearly aimed at Tony Blair and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, on the eve of their meeting today with Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president. The IRA blamed Mr Blair for the present crisis in the peace process and claimed the British Government had "once again demonstrated a lack of political will to confront the Unionist veto".

Some observers were confident last night that the ceasefire would hold for the time being, but the IRA statement made a chilling reference to the last time it broke its ceasefire, without warning, with the bombing of South Quay in London.

Asserting that the Good Friday Agreement had failed to "deliver tangible" progress, the IRA recalled its first ceasefire "floundered on the demand of the Conservative government for an IRA surrender". And it added: "Those who demand the decommissioning of IRA weapons lend themselves, in the current political context, inadvertently or otherwise, to the failed agenda which seeks the defeat of the IRA. The British Government have the power to change that context and should do so."

The senior UUP negotiator Sir Reg Empey said: "The IRA statement is a thinly veiled threat concerning Unionist doubts about their commitment to democratic politics." .

President Bill Clinton, who was briefed by Mr Blair, said he was "very disappointed" at the breakdown of the talks. But he said that he was convinced neither side wanted the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement and "my instinct is that it will be resolved".

Both sides entrenched; the IRA statement, page 4