Tony Blair's hopes of rescuing the Northern Ireland peace process have been dented after two Ulster Unionist MPs withdrew their backing from attempts to keep the province's power-sharing executive and assembly.
Jeffrey Donaldson and David Burnside issued a statement calling on the Ulster Unionists to end their support for the new political institutions. They declared the IRA would not decommission its weapons and attacked proposed concessions to Sinn Fein over policing being drawn up by the British and Irish Governments.
The statement could cast a shadow over talks today between Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, who are set to meet in Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency.
The outburst from the two hardline MPs sends a clear signal many Unionists will not accept any proposals unless there is a guarantee the IRA will put its weapons beyond use.
That increased the pressure on David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and limits his room for manoeuvre over the take-it-or-leave it proposals from London and Dublin.
Mr Trimble has resigned as Northern Ireland's First Minister, but Mr Blair and Mr Ahern hope he can be persuaded to return by the IRA taking positive steps on decommissioning. Time is running out to prevent the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement. Mr Trimble's resignation means the British Government has until 12 August to decide whether to suspend the executive and reimpose direct rule from London – most likely – or calling new assembly elections.
The air of tension has prompted officials in London and Dublin to decide not to publish any proposals after the meeting of Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, so as to prevent the plans being killed at birth by a hostile reaction. Sources in London said the two Governments wanted to give the political parties "time and space" to consider the new document. It is now unlikely to be sent to the parties until early next week.
Mr Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, and Mr Burnside, MP for South Antrim, declared that they were not prepared to "actively participate in discussions" which would ultimately destroy the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
They said: "The so-called peace process has been stumbling on its last legs for some time. Unionists must break out of the present flawed institutions of a process which is a form of joint authority whose strategic direction is being directed by a pan-nationalist front of Sinn Fein/IRA, the SDLP and the southern Irish Fianna Fail Government."
The two MPs added: "Sinn Fein/IRA is not going to decommission. The pan-nationalist front's insatiable demands have already been acceded to by weakening the Royal Ulster Constabulary and is now directed at the total destruction of the morale and operational capability of the RUC to police Northern Ireland."
They demanded fresh negotiations with the Government to replace the assembly and executive with "a new democratically accountable form of local administration".
The package due to be discussed by Mr Blair and Mr Ahern today is believed to offer a trade-off between further RUC reform and IRA decommissioning. It also includes proposals to scale down Britain's military presence in Republican South Armagh and to ensure the stability of the executive and assembly.
While a general amnesty for convicted terrorists has been ruled out, London and Dublin may include one for 60 Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries still "on the run."