Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has indicated that he would be prepared to re-enter government with Sinn Fein without the handover of IRA weapons - but only if there was a firm guarantee that guns would be decommissioned down the line.
Mr Trimble is due to meet President Bill Clinton and possibly Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in Washington later today as the pressure to find a way forward for the Northern Ireland peace process intensified.
"I have made it clear that we are prepared to be involved in a fresh sequence which will probably not involve arms up front but it has to involve the issue being dealt with, it has to involve the matter working," said the Ulster Unionist leader.
His signal that he was willing to be flexible sounded a note of hope in a week where the prospects of a resolution to the disarmament-devolution deadlock looked gloomy.
His remarks follow Irish premier Bertie Ahern's admission on American television the guns would probably not be handed over in the near future but that the paramilitaries must show their "clear intent that the violence is finished".
Mr Trimble was condemned by the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Peter Robinson, who claimed the UUP leader was "outperforming himself as the arch sucker" of the current talks process.
The East Belfast MP said: "As someone who has been made look a fool on many occasions, you might have expected more caution from someone like him.
"However, David Trimble is earning the name in Northern Ireland and abroad as someone who is a Putty Man who can be easily shaped by presidents, prime ministers and provos.
"To suggest that unionists could go back into government again with Sinn Fein on the expectation that there might be movement on guns is foolish and it has already been proven."
Mr Robinson, who served as Regional Development minister in the suspended Stormont executive, said it was no wonder that Jonathan Bell, a councillor and stern critic of Mr Trimble's leadership, had resigned today from the Ulster Unionists.
"I know there are a number of Ulster Unionists who are expressing misgivings about remaining in the party and many of them believe that it is only a matter of time before David Trimble caves in again on the guns issue.
"This appears to be signalling that. It is no wonder Mr Trimble doesn't command much confidence within his own party."
In Washington, meanwhile, Mr Trimble said he still believed the peace process would work "sooner or later" though he very much hoped it would be sooner rather than later.
And he insisted the May 22 deadline anticipated in the Good Friday Agreement for the completion of arms handover could still be met.Reuse content