The Northern Ireland peace process burst into renewed life yesterday with a dramatic IRA offer to put its arms beyond use if the process remains on course and delivers on issues such as police reform.
This was seen as setting the scene for a possible historic breakthrough, especially when the new IRA move drew a favourable reaction from Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who will now attempt to sell it to his party.
If all goes according to plan, the suspended Belfast Assembly and associated institutions could be back in operation by 22 May, coupled with an IRA assurance that its guns will be "completely and verifiably put beyond use".
This was hailed in most quarters as a highly significant development with the potential to break the deadlock that has held back movement in the peace process for many months.
Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern expect the arms to be put beyond use by June next year, but in the meantime the IRA has agreed to take the unprecedented step of allowing some of its arms dumps to be inspected by two international figures.
These are Cyril Ramaphosa, the former secretary-general of the African National Congress, and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, who acted as a European Union envoy during last year's Kosovo crisis.
The IRA said this was being arranged as a confidence-building measure and that the dumps "will be re-inspected regularly to ensure that the weapons have remained silent". It is understood that three dumps are to be seen by the two men, who agreed to become involved in the exercise within the last few days.
The deal has emerged from weeks of contacts involving the two prime ministers, republicans led by Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, and Mr Trimble. Success depends on the Ulster Unionist Party agreeing to accept the republican assurance on arms and agreeing to drop its previous insistence on simultaneous decommissioning.
Since republicans have insisted that the issue of IRA guns will only be settled when the Good Friday Agreement's many provisions have been implemented, the two governments have drawn up a calendar showing that this can be achieved by June 2001.
Although both the IRA statement and a joint Blair-Ahern statement spoke of putting arms completely and verifiably beyond use, neither spelt out exactly how this might be done. This is expected to be left to the existing Decommissioning Commission, which is chaired by Canadian General John de Chastelain.
It is known that David Trimble and his deputy, John Taylor, met Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness late on Friday night for a meeting which is said to have gone well. Any move back into government will have to be cleared by the Unionist party's ruling council.
Mr Trimble yesterday attended a meeting of his party's Assembly members, which ended without a vote on the subject. He said later: "There are some interesting things in this statement. It does appear to break new ground. There are some positive aspects to it - some very positive aspects, but there are also some questions that we have already raised with people that we want to just tease out."
His critics within the party quickly served notice that the plan will be opposed. Jeffrey Donaldson MP said it would provide neither decommissioning nor disarmament, adding: "The Ulster Unionist Council will have to decide whether it wants to vote for Martin McGuinness to become minister of education again without a single bullet being decommissioned by the IRA."