A new wave of pessimism descended over the Irish peace process on Tuesday as republicans and Unionists showed themselves to be as far apart as ever on the key issues of decommissioning and policing.
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness launched a strong attack on Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, accusing him of making his "greatest blunder of all" in underestimating the significance of the IRA's move on decommissioning. This followed Monday's announcement by the chairman of the international decommissioning body, General John de Chastelain, that the IRA had made an acceptable proposal on how to put weaponry beyond use.
While Mr Trimble initially gave a guarded welcome to the development, describing it as a significant step towards decommissioning, his position appeared to harden yesterday following a series of party meetings. He said: "If there is that movement then there is a serious issue for us to consider, and we will consider it, but until that happens there is actually nothing for us to consider."
The gap between the two sides has led to a growing belief that by the weekend the government will reluctantly have to move to suspend the Belfast assembly or find some other way of protecting it in the absence of agreement.
Most observers consider that Mr Trimble has little latitude for movement, given that his party is highly unlikely to agree to go back into government with Sinn Fein without actual decommissioning taking place. Unless this suddenly materialises suspension looms for the assembly. While the IRA move on the means of decommissioning was warmly welcomed by London and Dublin, the absence of any timetable means Unionist minds have not been swayed.
Although contacts continued behind the scenes yesterday, the general sense is that it was a bad day for the peace process. The decommissioning deadlock has been exacerbated by continuing disagreements on policing, with the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party saying it could not yet support the new police service.
Mr Trimble, who yesterday established a strong link between the two issues, said he was most disappointed by this.
Unionists also expressed anger over not being told about new regulations altering the issue of how weapons could be disposed of. A new scheme, which was discreetly approved by John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary, has already come into effect.
The Ulster Unionist peer Lord Kilclooney accused the Government of secrecy, saying: "It was only four hours later that we realised the scheme had been changed. Apparently they have weakened the scheme and I want to see how it works in detail. It may be phrased in such a way that the word of others is going to be accepted by De Chastelain rather than his own."
Mr McGuinness said Mr Trimble seemed to be in "cloud cuckoo land" and claimed: "Of all the mistakes made throughout the course of the last three years, what David Trimble has done in rejecting the determination of the commission is the greatest mistake of all. It is the biggest blunder of all."Reuse content