The Northern Ireland peace process was in deepening crisis today as the Ulster Unionists and the nationalist SDLP withheld full endorsement of the Anglo–Irish proposals to try and save the Good Friday Agreement.
Unless the IRA begin to start disarming within the next 48 hours, Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid is almost certain to be forced to suspend the Stormont Assembly, unionists warned.
The provisionals faced new demands to dump their weapons after unionist MPs and the party's assembly members met for two hours in Belfast to discuss the package of proposals prepared by Prime Minister Tony Blair and the republic's Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
Afterwards David Trimble, the unionist leader who resigned as First Minister six weeks ago, said Dr Reid would have to make a decision on the future of the Assembly by Thursday.
He bitterly attacked the SDLP for failing to sign up to the new policing arrangements.
Unionists are to have talks later today with General John de Chastelain, head of the international commission on decommissioning who claimed the IRA had started a process to put their weapons beyond use.
But his assessment and the British and Irish blueprint failed to persuade Mr Trimble and his parliamentary colleagues.
He said: "It was only if that package (the Anglo–Irish proposals) succeeded in providing movement from the republicans and nationalists that the situation would arise. We have seen a step by republicans, but of course it falls far short of what we need which is to see the decommissioning actually begin."
The Government has until midnight on Saturday to re–appoint a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister – otherwise the Assembly will have to go into suspension. If members are to be recalled to Stormont, then arrangements have to get under way by Thursday at the very latest.
The SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon admitted the timetable was tight.
He said: "The last posting time on Wednesday is going to be required to be met if the Assembly is to be re–called on Friday. The last post on Thursday is going to be required if the Assembly is going to be recalled on Saturday."Reuse content