Peter Mandelson appealed to the Provisional IRA to rescue David Trimble by declaring that its war was over and that it would never use the weapons it still retains.
In an interview with The Independent the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland warned hardliners in the nationalist and Unionist camps that he would not change any aspect of the Good Friday Agreement to kickstart the faltering peace process. "The agreement is as good as it gets for all sides," he said. "We cannot reopen parts of it at anyone's behest."
In the next few weeks the British and Irish governments will seek to secure a new pledge from the Republican movement. They want the IRA to declare it would never return to using its weapons and to give a long-term commitment to decommissioning, a move which could push back the May deadline by one or two years.
Mr Mandelson's plea for a new IRA statement came as Mr Trimble's position looked increasingly vulnerable after his narrow and unconvincing victory over the Rev Martin Smyth, an opponent of the Good Friday Agreement who challenged him for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party on Saturday.
In the wake of the vote anti-agreement Unionists believe they hold the initiative within the party and have tied Mr Trimble's hands. Some of them believe they have ensured no real movement will take place before the next general election.
Republicans will now be considering whether it is possible for them to continue to try to do business with Mr Trimble in his weakened state or whether he is incapable of delivering his party in the event of a new deal.
Mr Mandelson admitted the close vote was a setback but denied the peace process was in jeopardy. In his interview he rejected the Ulster Unionist Party's demand for him to scrap plans for sweeping reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, even though its ruling council decided the party would not re-enter the government if the RUC shake-up goes ahead. "These changes bring pain to the RUC family; I understand that," he said. "But it has not stopped the RUC approaching the process of change and its implementation with great competence and typical professionalism."
Mr Mandelson called for a clear statement by the IRA that "their guns are not going to be used in future, the option of going back to the violence, to the war, is no longer going to be used as a negotiating or bargaining ploy and that in time the arms will be disposed of." He said Republicans "could and should offer to help David Trimble out of what is a difficult situation for him created by elements within his own party".
In an important change of strategy, Mr Mandelson hinted that a deadline for decommissioning might have to be addressed at a later stage. "In the short term, people need to know that the weapons will not be used again. In the longer term, they need to be know how those weapons will be disposed. Everyone needs each other to make this work. Unionists need nationalists and Republicans need Unionists. Everyone needs a partner in this process. Everyone needs to help each other to make progress and to keep the hardliners at bay."
He added: "Unionists need to give Republicans confidence that their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement is intact and Republicans need to give Unionists reassurance that they will address the issue of arms and will not be going back to the bad old days of violence. We cannot keep having conditions imposed and new demands introduced. The agreement is as it was negotiated and we need it to be implemented in full."
Mr Mandelson clashed with Ulster Unionists yesterday after accusing them of "playing politics" with the RUC. John Taylor, the party's deputy leader, said it was Mr Mandelson who had "hijacked the name of the RUC" by implementing the Patten report proposals.
Hardline critics piled the pressure on Mr Trimble after his 57-43 per cent victory over Mr Smyth and there was speculation that an emergency meeting of the party council could be called after Easter. William Thompson said Mr Trimble had been "greatly weakened" and should consider his position, while Jeffrey Donaldson, another Unionist MP, said there should be no talk of re-entering government with Sinn Fein "without guns up front".Reuse content