A devolved government could be restored in Northern Ireland before 22 May under a new plan to revive the flagging peace process to be discussed by Tony Blair in Belfast today.
The Prime Minister will hold talks with leaders of Ulster's political parties before moving on to Dublin for dinner with Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, tomorrow night.
Although Downing Street played down any hopes of a "big breakthrough" being made today, ministers hope the IRA will issue a firm "declaration of intent" to decommission its weapons in order to secure the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing executive which were suspended in February after just nine weeks.
It is understood that the IRA is unlikely to declare that its "war" is over or to offer a firm timetable for disposing of its weapons. However, the British and Irish Governments are prepared to move away from the "dates and deadlines" approach taken by George Mitchell, the former US senator who brokered the deal under which all paramilitary groups should have decommissioned by 22 May.
Mr Blair is throwing his weight behind a new push for a permanent peace because there are fears that the Good Friday Agreement would be seen as "dead in the water" if the present impasse continues beyond 22 May.
The two Governments will discuss the publication of a new position paper, possibly next week, mapping out a new way to end the stalemate which has existed since Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, reimposed direct rule from Westminster in February.
In preliminary talks ahead of today's meetings, officials from London and Dublin agreed that the first move would have to come from the IRA, whose refusal to set out a timetable for decommissioning was blamed for the suspension of the fledgling institutions.
A senior source in the Northern Ireland Office said last night: "To get the Unionists back on the pitch, the Republicans have got to show willing, meet the Unionists' concerns over decommissioning and raise their confidence about the republicans' commitment to the peace process."
A huge obstacle to progress could be the tensions within the Ulster Unionist Party. David Trimble, the party leader, is prepared to look for a new formula on decommissioning but faces strong opposition from internal critics who are refusing to drop the party's "no guns, no government" stance. Hardliners would be alarmed by any IRA statement which did not include a firm timetable for disposing of its arsenal.
Another problem is that the Ulster Unionist ruling council has declared there can be no return to devolved government until ministers scrap plans to drop the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary under sweeping reforms of the province's police. This could force more concessions from the Government.
Downing Street insisted that no blueprint had been drawn up and that Mr Blair's talks in Belfast and Dublin today were a "stock-taking exercise". It will be his first visit to Northern Ireland since last July.
The prospects of swift progress at today's meetings receded when Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist leaders clashed last night over the terms of any new deal.
Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's national chairman, said his party would be looking to Mr Blair for ideas and to give a guarantee that if the power-sharing executive is re-activated, it would never be suspended again.
"We will require very clear and in-writing guarantees that neither Peter Mandelson nor any other Secretary of State would activate the [suspension] legislation again," he said.
But Mr Trimble queried whether such a guarantee could be given to Sinn Fein, claiming the Good Friday Agreement recognised the right of London as the sovereign government to suspend the institutions.Reuse content