Northern Ireland's fledgling cross-community government looked as if it would be suspended on Thursday night after a day of recriminations between republicans and Unionists on the weapons issue.
The IRA yesterday issued a terse statement which confirmed it had agreed a scheme to put its guns completely and verifiably beyond use – but crucially it contained no new concession on decommissioning, as demanded by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, as his price for going back into government with Sinn Fein.
With Saturday night the legal deadline for a government decision on whether or not to suspend the assembly or call fresh elections, a suspension is now thought highly likely. An election could be potentially disastrous in the light of the recent tendency of Northern Ireland voters to desert the centre and support the more extreme parties.
Suspension could take different forms, being either open-ended or for a specific period of possibly six weeks. The general sense is that this offers the best chance of a soft landing for the devolved administration, coinciding as it would with the Belfast assembly's summer break; London, Dublin and the political parties could return in the autumn for fresh talks.
It nonetheless remains a controversial course of action, with Sinn Fein yesterday opposing such a move and Mr Trimble pushing for it publicly.
Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, claimed the Unionist leader was threatening to pull his ministers out of the Northern Ireland executive in an attempt to force the government to be suspended.
John Reid, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, yesterday met both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists.
The IRA statement said that talks with General John de Chastelain's decommissioning body would continue. In an evident reference to Mr Trimble it said: "We note the ongoing attempts in some quarters to prevent progress.They should not be permitted to succeed."
Mr Trimble blamed republicans for the crisis. "Even at this late stage, republicans can still save the process and save the assembly by acting. But if they don't act, then it is they who have put the institutions at risk. It is they who brought about this crisis. A brutal reality remains – the UK government's brave, humane efforts to contain ethnic rage in the Balkans will be cruelly mocked if it is seen to be party to an eruption of ethnic rage in the UK."
Alex Maskey, of Sinn Fein, accused Mr Trimble of setting out to wreck the process, saying that General de Chastelain had approved the method of dealing with arms proposed by the IRA. "I know that the statement General de Chastelain made on behalf of his commission represents a very significant breakthrough in this process. Again we now see this being rejected and squandered by the Ulster Unionist party."
Andrew Mackay, the Conservative's spokesman on Northern Ireland, said the IRA statement was "helpful" but did not go far enough. "Crucially there is still no indication from [the republicans] as to when the process of putting arms beyond use will begin."
¿ A 45-year-old victim of the Ealing bombing was critically ill after collapsing following his discharge from hospital.
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