The fate of the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland's devolved Assembly was in the balance last night after the long-awaited Anglo-Irish initiative to break the deadlock provoked a furious reaction from Unionists.
David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, declared that the current crisis would only be resolved by "republicans fulfilling obligations" on decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. He warned that his party would not go back into government without a significant move by the IRA.
The British and Irish governments are hoping for a positive response from the IRA, expected to make a statement by Monday, to the joint document which sought to meet republican concerns on policing and demilitarisation.
Republicans were non-committal but the document is thought to increase the chances of a positive IRA response.
The parties have been given until Monday to give their reactions, with Sinn Fein due to meet tomorrow and the Unionist party to confer on Monday. The hope is that the IRA will also reply over the next few days.
The document, put together by the two governments following recent political talks at Weston Park in Shropshire, dealt only briefly with decommissioning but laid out a series of proposals on future policing and the running down of the army presence, particularly in the south Armagh area.
Unless David Trimble is re-elected as First Minister by 12 August, the Government will be obliged to suspend the Belfast Assembly or call fresh elections. However, it is hopedthat enough will be forthcoming on decommissioning before then to bring Mr Trimble to stand again.
There have been no overt signals from the republican camp that decommissioning is imminent but supporters of the Good Friday Agreement hope the IRA will act to help save the accord from collapse.
Mr Trimble said: "In the absence of decommissioning, there will be no progress and, consequently, no Ulster Unionist will be able to offer himself for election as First Minister. There cannot be a moral vacuum at the heart of this. We are not legitimising terrorism. It's not all right to be in government by day and out engaged in other activities by night."
Dissident Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside said he hoped the party would reject the proposals. He said: "This overall package is not, in my opinion, acceptable to the broad Unionist family. I would hope that we will be united on Monday and reject these proposals."
Further Unionist criticism came from Democratic Unionist Party leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, who declared: "Publication of this document is a double failure for David Trimble. His tactic of resignation was designed to enhance his party's election prospects and to put pressure on the IRA to decommission. On both counts, Trimble has failed."
He added that the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, policing, the arms issue and other questions were "all stand-alone issues to be resolved in their own right", saying: "Our approach will be to engage constructively to see if what is proposed has the potential to finally implement the Good Friday Agreement, as promised by the two governments."
A funeral and a bomb alert yesterday brought reminders of the continuing violence. The funeral took place of 18-year-old Gavin Brett, a Protestant shot dead in north Belfast by Loyalists who thought he was a Catholic. A Catholic friend of the youth, who was also injured in the incident, had to attend the funeral in a wheelchair.
The army carried out two controlled explosions on a car at Belfast International Airport which contained 20kg of home-made explosive. Dissident republicans are suspected.Reuse content