The sense of impending political crisis in Northern Ireland deepened yesterday as the Ulster Unionists signalled their intention to pull their ministers out of the cross-community executive.
At the same time, Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid comprehensively denied reports that the IRA might be on the brink of weapons decommissioning, describing them as mischievous.
Mr Reid restored the Belfast devolved institutions at midnight last night, giving a further six weeks of breathing space during which the Government hopes an arms deal can be hammered out.
But Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble dramatically cut short the time available for talks by announcing that he will seek to have Sinn Fein thrown out of the Government. If he is unsuccessful, the Unionist party will withdraw its three ministers from Stormont.
Mr Reid yesterday made no attempt to conceal his annoyance at the suggestions, attributed to senior security sources, that the IRA may be on the point of starting to decommission guns.
He said: "I've seen that report. I think it's a mischievous report. I don't know who is doing it. I hope it is no one connected with any of my security officials. We have to wait and see what happens. I have been given no promises, there has been no guarantee, there has been no indication other than the statements from the IRA that they wish to intensify and accelerate." RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan has also said he has no intelligence that the IRA is about to decommission.
Last night Mr Reid restored power to the Assembly and its executive following a 24-hour technical suspension, in effect setting a new deadline for agreement in early November. He made it clear he believed this was the last time a six-week extension could be used.
Mr Trimble announced however that tomorrow morning he will introduce an Assembly motion calling for the two Sinn Fein ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun, to be expelled from the executive.
Such a motion could succeed only with the support of the nationalist SDLP, which is unlikely to back it. In that case, Mr Trimble said, his party's ministers could not stay in the Government.
There was, he said, a "rising tide of anger" at the contrast between the British government's response to the terror attacks in the US and the threat posed by armed groups in Northern Ireland.
Mr Reid said he had opted for only a one-day suspension because he believed real progress could be made in the next six weeks.
He declared: "In view of past discouragements, I can understand all too well why many will remain sceptical. My message to the sceptics and to the paramilitaries themselves is that the door is open. There is now an opportunity for those with illegally held arms to take the step which will enable the issue to be resolved once and for all."Reuse content