The IRA last night told the Government that its demand for the decommissioning of weapons was "ludicrous" and declared: "There is no possibility of the IRA meeting these demands."
The statement, one of the rare public comments made by the organisation over the past year, said there was no possibility of disarmament except as part of a negotiated settlement.
It was clearly designed to reinforce the message delivered by Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, that not a single bullet is to be decommissioned, despite the protracted impasse on the issue.
The public position laid out so clearly by the IRA means it is impossible to conceive of the organisation complying with London's demands. Any future attempt to draw back from yesterday's statement would result in an enormous loss of face and credibility for the IRA and would almost certainly cause a split in the movement.
The statement declared: "The British government know enough of Anglo- Irish history to understand that there is no possibility of disarmament except as part of a negotiated settlement. Given that history and the reality that they and their loyalist allies hold the largest stock of licensed and unlicensed weapons, the demand for an IRA handover of weapons is ludicrous."
But ministers last night stood by the demand for progress on decommissioning before Sinn Fein can join the all-party talks.
The hard-line approach in the IRA statement came as a surprise to ministers, but they refused to be drawn. "It's an attempt to beat the drum by the IRA before today's Sinn Fein conference," said one senior government source.
Mr Adams will face a private conference of 800 Sinn Fein supporters in Dublin to review his handling of the negotiations.
Attending a forum on "peace and reconciliation" in Dublin Castle for politicians from the North and South of Ireland, Mr Adams claimed the Government was contemplating ending the peace process, and starting a "military crackdown" on republicans. He said: "Elements in the British establishment and the British government are contemplating the collapse and the breakdown of the peace process and they are also contemplating a sharp, unprecedented military crackdown upon republican activists and in some way a return to a military victory or suppression."
Dismissing the claims, John Major said: "Anybody who seeks to damage the peace process, anybody who seeks to end the ceasefire will have to answer to two very severe audiences for that: firstly the audience of Irish men and women north and south of the border; they don't want this to end, they want this to carry on. Secondly, they would have to answer to the audience of history."
Loyalist killing, page 2