`We'll go ahead without you,' IRA told

Ulster crisis: Tony Blair sends a tough message to the terrorists from the G7 conference
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The Independent Online
Sinn Fein yesterday held out what it clearly intended to be viewed as an olive branch to the Government yesterday, with a speech from Martin McGuinness contending that all was not lost in the flagging peace process.

Declaring that Sinn Fein was "working very hard to save the situation," the republican MP signalled that weapons decommissioning was the biggest single obstacle in the way of a renewed IRA ceasefire.

In America, meanwhile, Tony Blair, attending the Summit of Eight in Denver, publicly warned Sinn Fein in the strongest possible terms that he would not wait indefinitely for it to join the multi-party talks.

In an interview with the US ABC television network, he declared: "They can't sit there and say we're not going to let anyone else talk about a lasting settlement in Northern Ireland because we won't." Mr McGuinness's overture will clearly be treated with the utmost suspicion by the government in the wake of last week's IRA murders of two RUC officers in Co Armagh. The shootings were regarded both as the most brutal possible disruption of Sinn Fein's contacts with the Government and, happening as they did within miles of the Drumcree parade flashpoint, a severe provocation to loyalist groups.

Mr McGuinness himself acknowledged that the IRA killings, which he coupled with continuing loyalist violence, had helped create "a climate of fear and of apprehension". Then, most unusually for a Sinn Fein leader speaking to a republican audience, he went on to commend the Blair government for its approach.

Little of this is likely to be taken at face value by either the Government or others involved in British or Irish politics. Most immediately it may be viewed as an attempt to influence the content of an important statement on Northern Ireland which it is reported Mr Blair may make on Wednesday.

Most observers will have difficulty in working out whether Mr McGuinness was waving or almost drowning in the flood of condemnation which followed the killings of the policemen. But the speech was clearly aimed at reassuring those who retain faith in the peace process that it is not yet over.

Mr McGuinness said Mr Blair was taking up a position which was an advance on that adopted by John Major, adding: "Some might feel that the new government is moving very far indeed." He also commended the Government for addressing, "in varying degrees", Sinn Fein's concerns.

The message from republicans is that no IRA ceasefire is to be expected while the decommissioning issue remains unresolved. Republicans want to remove any possibility that, having been admitted to talks in the event of a ceasefire, Unionist parties might have the power to have them ejected if no IRA arms are handed over.

Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist MP, yesterday argued that the IRA was "politically irredeemable" and said he would not be taken in by any sort of temporary ceasefire or hollow gesture by the IRA.

In Bellaghy, Co Londonderry, yesterday, a potentially difficult Orange parade passed off without incident. A large-scale RUC operation partially re-routed the march to keep it away from protesting nationalist residents.

Meanwhile, it has now been established that a boobytrap bomb which exploded beneath a car in Belfast on Saturday was the work of loyalists intent on killing a Catholic man who had served a jail sentence for republican offences. He and another man were in the car when the device went off but were only slightly injured.