A party linked with loyalist paramilitaries tonight pulled out of talks to restore devolution in Northern Ireland because it claimed it was being shut out of the negotiations.
In another blow for the peace process, Progressive Unionist leader David Ervine, whose party has links to the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando, said his colleagues could not be expected to “rubberstamp” a deal they had no sight of during negotiations.
In a sign of growing disillusionment about the management of the political process, the East Belfast MLA said: “It is clear there are things going on in the undergrowth – both political and paramilitary.
“Unless we have a clear understanding, a clear sight of what those are it would be foolish for the PUP to take its place in the upcoming talks and be used simply for a pat on the head and to rubberstamp something we have not been party to.
“We are not prepared to play that game.”
Mr Ervine and his Assembly colleague, Billy Hutchinson walked out of the multi-party talks before Christmas when Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble stormed out over claims that the IRA was still active.
In the autumn, the PUP expressed reservations about participating in negotiations to restore the Assembly and power-sharing executive if they were excluded from all discussions as in previous processes.
In a frank assessment of the state of his party, Mr Ervine said tonight that PUP members were divided over the value of the current process.
“Having been absolutely united for so long on the (Good Friday) Agreement, we now have a definite difference of opinion developing in the party about the dishonour around the agreement and not only that, members are questioning if this agreement can work.
“That is something we have to take stock of and it really is not helpful when we are at the whim of David Trimble, where we might hear from the Prime Minister or might hear from David Trimble.
“The important thing we have to understand here is that the IRA have been in substantial dialogue around what may come next. One can understand their feelings and need to do that and evidently the British government feels it is important to do.
“But immediately when they finish their dialogue, the media and the British government will revert to loyalism and demand that loyalists follow suit having had no dialogue, having had no understanding, having not been aware of the price extracted from the government and the unionist community to get the IRA to do what is the right thing in the first instance.”
Mr Ervine’s warning came after the British Prime Minister Tony Blair held the first in a series of meetings in Downing Street this week with Northern Ireland leaders.
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said after his meeting the Prime Minister had told him when he called for acts of completion from all paramilitaries that meant they had to “stop all their activities.
“We need to see republicans completing what they should have done in May 2000,” the Upper Bann MP said.
“That means they must decommission visibly and transparently and agree to wind up their paramilitary organisations.
“In the event of that not happening, we sought assurances that there would be effective remedies. Let’s not forget that when suspension occurred, the innocent were treated just the same as the guilty ones and that was unfair and wrong.
“For too long in this process, there has been too much carrot and not enough stick.”