Northern Ireland faced the prospect of prolonged direct rule by Westminster yesterday after the IRA rejected "unrealistic" demands that it disarm.
The IRA's leaders also appear to have been offended by Tony Blair's allegation that they are a "threat to the peace process" – a charge which the paramilitary commanders indignantly denied.
The IRA message came as Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble said disbandment, not promises, was needed to get devolved government restored in Northern Ireland. Words like "the war is over" that might once have meant something cut no ice today, he told his party annual conference in Londonderry.
Neither would deeds if, again, they were "grudging and minimalist". Unionists would not be satisfied with some "phantom disbandment". The paramilitaries really had to go away. "Their day is over," said Mr Trimble.
The IRA statement said: "There is considerable concern within the IRA at recent developments. There is also real anger at the attempt to present the IRA as a threat to the peace process. The IRA is not a threat to the process and will not accept the imposition of unrealistic demands."
Their statement was greeted calmly in Westminster yesterday, where there had been no expectation that the IRA would change tack quickly in the light of last week's decision to suspend the Northern Ireland executive. Downing Street declined to add anything to the speech delivered in the province by Tony Blair on Thursday, when he warned the IRA that they were at a "fork in the road".
However, the prolonged crisis in the province has put further strain on the tradition that the Labour Party and the Conservatives suspend normal political hostilities when dealing with Northern Ireland.
Yesterday, the Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, delivered his most outspoken attack so far on Mr Blair's handling of the province. He said that though the Tories supported the Government's long-term aim, they had become "exasperated" by Mr Blair's tactics. He warned that they may now call for the expulsion of Gerry Adams and three other Sinn Fein MPs who have been granted offices and office allowances in the House of Commons.
"Along with the breaches of the ceasefire this has done more than anything to give the impression that the 'peace' process is a one-way street and to undermine confidence in it," he warned.
Speaking at the conference of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr Duncan Smith listed what he saw as a series of government blunders, including releasing republican prisoners without insisting that the IRA should decommission its weapons in return; allowing the Royal Ulster Constabulary to be "denigrated and traduced in the name of political correctness"; and admitting Sinn Fein MPs to Westminster.
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