The Government should consider initiating moves to exclude Sinn Fein from the Northern Ireland Executive, SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon declared in the wake of the resignation of the First Minister, David Trimble.
In a dramatic departure from his party's long-established policy of inclusion, Mr Mallon said London could require the Belfast Assembly to consider expelling Sinn Fein from government.
His remarks were viewed as a call to both London and Dublin to take a tougher line against Sinn Fein and the IRA in this month's negotiations.
Today, the Northern Ireland body politic will formally be told what it already knows: that it has lost its First Minister, that the IRA has yet to decommission a single bullet, and that the peace process is in crisis. The Belfast Assembly will be informed by its speaker, Lord Alderdice, that the Ulster Unionist leader has left office because the IRA has made no move on disarmament.
Next, General John de Chastelain, the head of the Independent International Decommissioning Commission, will say that while he remains in contact with the IRA, no decommissioning has occurred.
The scene will thus be set for a most difficult summer in which London and Dublin will try to build a new political package, to the possible accompaniment of trouble on the streets as the loyalist marching season reaches its climax.
Mr Trimble resigned at the weekend in line with his pre-election threat to do so unless the IRA began decommissioning. Mr Mallon also lost his post as Deputy First Minister because of Mr Trimble's move. Tomorrow the Ulster Unionist Party and other parties are to begin a week of talks with John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
These contacts are seen as a prelude to a reinvolvement next week of the two prime ministers, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. The Government has made clear that it will press for a breakthrough during July.
Although Northern Ireland now has no First Minister, Mr Trimble has appointed one of his allies, Sir Reg Empey, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, to do the functions of the office for the next few weeks. Mr Trimble indicated that he hoped to return to the office. The most likely scenario, to his mind, is that if the IRA did not make a significant weapons move during July the Government would suspend the Assembly. This would then be followed by fresh talks in September.
The Government is unlikely to take up Mr Mallon's idea of moving against Sinn Fein, given that its expulsion from the system would close the door completely to decommissioning.
But it represents yet one more element in this case the largest northern nationalist party lining up to increase the pressure on republicans. The Irish government has repeatedly called on the IRA to decommission but the SDLP believes it should pile on even more pressure.
Mr Blair said he was sorry but understood why Mr Trimble had resigned. "He has been a good First Minister for the people of Northern Ireland and I hope that he will be able to resume that role shortly."
Mitchel McLaughlin, the chairman of Sinn Fein, said Mr Trimble's decision to resign had caused a crisis in the process, which the First Minister had long been planning. "The reality is that there was no threat to the peace process from Sinn Fein or the IRA."
Sinn Fein's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness later held out little hope of weapons being handed over by 12 August under current conditions.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4, he attacked Mr Trimble's "offensive and obnoxious" approach to the peace process and insisted on the Government implementing further police reform and a scaling-down of the military presence.
Asked what could be expected if those demands were met, he said: "Our view in Sinn Fein is that if we can make politics work, then there is a real opportunity for all participants collectively to try to convince the armed groups that they should make their own particular contribution."
Mr Trimble said he had to resign as First Minister to ensure that the peace process would not move on "without the arms issue being properly settled".
"I am prepared to resume that office, but only if we get this issue settled," he said.
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