In the wake of the IRA's statement, the weekend brought salvoes of hard- line rhetoric between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein. David Trimble, the Unionist leader and First Minister, said: "We are quite disappointed at the failure of the Sinn Fein leadership, who have it within their power to resolve this issue. It is their intransigence that is the problem. It is a repudiation of peace and I am sure all civilised people will repudiate them."
Gerry Kelly, a senior Sinn Fein member euphemistically described as "close to the thinking" of the IRA, accused the Unionist party of bad faith and of attempting to exclude Sinn Fein from new political arrangements. In an important speech in commemoration of a republican hero, he added: "Republicans are becoming increasingly detached from the Good Friday Agreement. It is increasingly my own view that the Unionist party is engaged in an attempt to push the IRA back to war." Significantly, he added: "There is an onus on republicans to resist the destructive and short-sighted Unionist strategies."
The Unionist and Sinn Fein positions have assumed a curious symmetry. Unionists say Sinn Fein leaders can and should push the IRA into decommissioning; republicans say Mr Trimble and his allies should convince nervous backbenchers Sinn Fein should be brought into government.
Last week's presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to John Hume, the SDLP leader, and Mr Trimble, followed by the refusal to decommission, has had no obvious beneficial effect on the process. But both the British and Irish governments remain hopeful of making early progress on lesser issues, including the agreement on the shape of new Northern Ireland government departments and links with the Republic. Both Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, are expected to become involved in efforts to clear these issues out of the way before Christmas. It is hoped this would restore momentum for a new year push ondecommissioning.
On the technicalities of these issues Unionists and nationalists appear on the point of agreement - a senior Unionist figure said they and the SDLP were "within an ace" of an accord. The question is whether prime ministerial involvement can clinch the issue.
Meanwhile, there were reports yesterday that the IRA has appointed Brian Keenan, a hardliner who masterminded bombing campaigns in Britain in the 1970s, as its new chief of staff.Reuse content