The Democratic Unionists were tonight under mounting pressure to clarify exactly what it will take for them to agree to devolving policing powers to Stormont.
The demand from Sinn Féin – the DUP’s partner in the North’s powersharing administration – came after senior party figure Jeffrey Donaldson said a decision to axe a police reserve unit could potentially scupper negotiations to transfer law and order responsibilities from Westminster.
The Lagan Valley MP’s remarks followed comments by his party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson two weeks ago that changes had to be made to how contentious Orange parades were managed before his party signed up.
Republicans claim both issues are preconditions the DUP have thrown into the mix at the last minute in a bid to delay devolution in the face of hard-line opposition both inside and outside the party.
Sinn Fein Junior Minister Gerry Kelly said neither matter had been identified as a make or break issue by the DUP until after the outstanding financial problems were resolved when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month offered £1bn to support the new justice ministry.
“If you look back at Arlene Foster (DUP economy minister) a few weeks ago she said none of these things were preconditions,” he said.
“Then a couple of weeks ago we get the parades as a precondition, then we get Jeffrey Donaldson today saying the retention of the full time reserve is a precondition.”
He added: “Depending on which one of the DUP is speaking they are saying something different.”
While Mr Kelly said the DUP’s stance had created “very difficult circumstances” within the executive, he rejected as “foolish” speculation that republicans would walk away from the powersharing institutions if progress was not made.
The latest stumbling block on the already rocky road to what is seen as the last piece of the peace process jigsaw emerged after Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Matt Baggott confirmed last week that the 380-strong full time reserve force would be phased out by March 2011.
The widely expected move is required as part of a long-standing programme of police reforms.
However, the DUP and other unionists have criticised its timing given the increased threat from dissident republicans.
Mr Donaldson said there had to be confidence within the unionist community before devolution could happen – and that axing the reserve was one of a number of issues that was undermining that confidence.
“We believe that in the absence of resolving this matter (the reserve) and some other issues like parades and PPWs (personal protection weapons for former security force members) and so on, that the public confidence simply isn’t there to allow devolution to proceed,” he said.
“The precondition is building public confidence, and these are the issues that help to build public confidence.
“So, the whole package is a precondition because building public confidence is a precondition.
“It could still happen. It is a question of getting these issues resolved. We have made some progress but we still have some way to go.”
Sinn Féin believes the DUP is stalling on a deal because of pressure from unionist hard-liners opposed to any accommodation that would give republicans a role in stewarding the North’s justice system.
Leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) Jim Allister, once a prominent member of the DUP, has become his former party’s harshest critic.
Tonight he said: “I welcome clarification from Jeffrey Donaldson... that the retention of the full time reserve is a precondition before policing and justice is devolved.”
He added: “TUV remains resolutely opposed to any deal which would see a terrorist inclusive executive get its hands on these powers.
“However, it is clear that TUV pressure has the potential to force the DUP into securing a better deal for unionism than it otherwise would have obtained.”
But Mr Kelly said the TUV and hard-liners within the DUP were going against public opinion.
“What the DUP need to do is show some leadership and move this on because everybody else beside a couple of people inside the DUP and the TUV want this to move forward.”
He also questioned how long the £1bn offer would remain on the table in the current economic climate.
“We need to get this sorted by Christmas,” he said.