IRA told Irish unity is far off

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The Irish republican leadership was challenged last night to tell the IRA that a united Ireland is out in the immediate future. Jonathan Stephenson, chairman of the SDLP, also warned of new divisions inside the Provisionals after he claimed his party had helped give Sinn Fein an easy ride out of the political darkness.

But with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness involved in the Stormont peace talks to find some sort of settlement, the painful process of engaging with reality had started, he said. "Now they have to tell their foot soldiers that a united, unitary Ireland is not an immediately attainable option," Mr Stephenson told the SDLP annual conference in Belfast.

"No one denies their right to argue for it and argue for it they are doing. But when reality sinks in, the splits will show. That always happens and its happening already."

Mr Stephenson added: "The question for Sinn Fein is: `Will the majority which emerges be prepared to acquiesce to arrangements which they do not regard as sufficient, but can portray as dynamic and allowing the continued political struggle towards their objective?'."

Even though at least two senior men have withdrawn from the IRA leadership because of their opposition to the Adams/ McGuinness peace strategy, the Provisionals have categorically denied any chaos in the organisation. At the same time security chiefs on both sides of the border, while confirming unease among the rank-and-file in some areas, said the ceasefire was under no immediate threat.

But they also accepted its future could depend on the level of progress at the negotiating table inside Castle Buildings. The talks enter a crucial phase on Monday.