Unprecedented IRA disarmament was in the balance today over a refusal by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists to compromise at the Northern Ireland peace talks.
As attempts to strike a deal on restoring the Stormont power-sharing Executive closed in on a high-noon deadline, the DUP was locked in to pledges to achieve sweeping changes to the Good Friday Agreement.
The hard-line stance during intense negotiations chaired by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at Leeds Castle, Kent, left Sinn Féin increasingly frustrated.
One party source said: “We don’t believe that the republican contribution to this process, or any agreement that might emerge in this process, is an obstacle.
“To do a deal you have got to be prepared to talk genuine compromise and be flexible on certain issues.
“But it’s hard to deal with someone who says ‘no’. They are not engaged with us.”
Mr Blair and Mr Ahern have only a few hours left to hammer out the issues and get a settlement before the parties must vacate the venue for a wedding.
Demands for the IRA to begin dismantling its terror operation are central to the DUP list of requirements before it will sit in government with Sinn Féin.
The Stormont power-sharing regime collapsed two years ago over an alleged espionage plot run by the Provisionals inside the Northern Ireland Office.
The IRA has already carried out three acts of decommissioning, but international disarmament chief General John de Chastelain has been ordered not to reveal what guns and bomb-making equipment he witnessed being destroyed.
Mr Paisley and his deputy, Peter Robinson, want visual proof of weapons destruction and a timetable setting out when the organisation will wind down for good.
It is understood that a statement has been drawn up and is being studied to see if it goes far enough.
“There’s a form of words floating around,” one talks insider said.
“These are words from P O’Neill (IRA signature name) that have been given to Blair and Ahern and relayed to the DUP.”
But even if the disarmament issue can be sorted out, the Democratic Unionists were also insisting on a radical overhaul to how the devolved institutions operate.
One key demand centres around making all ministers in the Executive accountable to the 108-member Assembly, a policy fiercely resisted by Sinn Féin and the nationalist SDLP, which views it as a possible attempt to impose unionist majority rule.
As the DUP delegates left Leeds Castle early today they warned that huge barriers to a resolution were yet to be dealt with.
“There are vital component parts of any deal we haven’t even discussed yet,” a party source said.
“As well as the structural issues there is the bigger stuff (on decommissioning).
“There are things floating around but nothing nailed down.
“We are not going to buy into the Belfast Agreement. We will have to return with fresh eyes in the morning.”
Sinn Féin vice chairman Pat Doherty said progress had been made at the Leeds Castle talks, but he accused the DUP of adopting an inflexible position.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think good progress was made over the last two days between Sinn Fein and the two governments but unfortunately the DUP has adopted a position that’s unacceptable to both governments and Sinn Fein.
“They are sitting with a very fixed position which is so far outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement nobody can accept it.”