The Irish and British governments were today due to consider the way forward for Northern Ireland’s troubled peace process – just one week after the suspension of devolution.
As Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness arrived in Washington to discuss the crisis with US president George Bush’s special adviser on Northern Ireland, Ambassador Richard Haass, Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen was due at Hillsborough Castle for talks with Ulster Secretary John Reid.
However British government sources were today playing down expectations of any immediate plan to end direct rule from Westminster and restore the devolved Assembly and power-sharing executive.
A Northern Ireland Office source said: “The talks are going to cover policing and security matters as well as the north-south arrangements in the (Good Friday) Agreement.
“Obviously Dr Reid and Mr Cowen will be reviewing the political situation and how we move from here.
“But really, the feeling is the ball right now is very much in the IRA’s court. The prime minister has made it very clear that we have reached a point in the process where there can be no more dual track for republicans.
“The fork in the road has been reached and they must now address the issue of the existence of paramilitaries.”
Republicans have resisted British prime minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s calls for the IRA to be stood down.
In a weekend briefing of journalists, the Provisionals dismissed the calls, insisting the organisation was “not a threat” to the peace process.
Dr Reid and Mr Cowen were due to be joined today at Hillsborough for their discussion on security issues by the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, and the Commissioner of the Gardai, Pat Byrne.
It will be the first such meeting since the arrests this month of four people - including Sinn Fein’s head of administration at Stormont, Denis Donaldson - for allegedly infiltrating the Northern Ireland Office’s headquarters and operating a spy ring.
Security chiefs were also expected to discuss the threat posed by dissident republicans amid conflicting signs over the future of the Real IRA.
As he headed to Washington for his meeting today with Mr Haass, Sinn Fein MP Martin McGuinness claimed the British government’s failure to implement the Good Friday Agreement was at the root of the political crisis affecting Northern Ireland.
The former Stormont Education Minister said yesterday Sinn Fein was “in the business” of resolving the issue of all armed groups” in Northern Ireland.
However he argued that had to be achieved through the “full and faithful implementation of the Agreement in its entirety” including vital issues like policing, human rights, equality and demilitarisation.
“Tony Blair in his speech last Tuesday has now explicitly acknowledged that the British government has failed to implement substantial sections of the Agreement,” the Mid Ulster MP observed.
“Sinn Fein are in the business of ensuring the full and faithful implementation of the Agreement in its entirety.
“This includes the resolution of the issue of armed groups along with the issue of policing, human rights, equality and demilitarisation.
“This is not a single item crisis.
“Its roots can be found in the British government’s failure to honour its obligations, its pandering to unionist demands and in unionism’s resistance to change.”
Meanwhile loyalists issued a warning yesterday to the British and Irish governments that if there was any move to enhance Dublin’s say over the affairs of Northern Ireland in the wake of the suspension of devolution, it would impact severely on their support for the peace process.
The Ulster Political Research Group, which provides political analysis for the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association, said while it still supported the peace process it was “diametrically opposed” to the Good Friday Agreement.
Expressing “deep concern” over the suspension of devolution, the UPRG said it believed: “If there is an attempt over the next few months to have joint authority or an even greater role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland, that loyalist paramilitary organisations would review their position within the so-called peace process.”