The setting of a date for elections to the Belfast Assembly is crucial if Sinn Féin is to make any approach to the IRA regarding the latest talks in the peace process, party negotiator Martin McGuinness has said.
After a meeting on Wednesday between the Sinn Féin leadership and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, the Mid-Ulster MP said ``the atmosphere is good'' between the parties.
``From our point of view we see the election as an accelerator in the process and certainly we will not be going to the IRA without an election date.
``The election is crucial from our perspective.''
A number of issues remain to be worked out for a deal which could encompass British army demilitarisation, human rights issues, the integrity of the North's power-sharing institutions and a significant move by the IRA.
The British government appears increasingly keen to allow the election to proceed after it twice cancelled the poll earlier this year.
Mr McGuinness repeated his view that there remained a narrow window of opportunity to resolve the problems in the peace process.
``The next 10 days are going to be absolutely critical,'' the former Education Minister said. ``I think we have only until the end of next week or maybe one or two days beyond that.''
Today's meeting was the fifth face-to-face encounter between Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams since efforts to revive the Assembly started again three weeks ago.
Unionists are holding out for a historic ``act of completion'' to bring an end to the IRA as a military force. Nationalists are seeking the final implementation of the outstanding elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, including the devolution of powers of policing and justice to the restored Belfast administration.
However, talks participants have in the past few days been casting doubt on the chances of a major, over-arching agreement.
NO SHORTCUTS - ADAMS
Gerry Adams has played down the focus on republicans in some recent statements.
``I think we all will have learned that this is a process, it is a journey, and there is no way of leap-frogging, or taking shortcuts. There is a collective responsibility. There isn't one single party responsibility.
``There are things within that collective responsibility that all of the parties have to do and we are working our way through them as best we can with the two governments and with the Ulster Unionist Party,'' he said.
Mr Adams said an election was needed to ignite public confidence and attention, and to restart the entire process with people with a refreshed mandate.
``We need to have an election, without preconditions, and as a matter of political principle.
``Obviously we want to have an election which returns the institutions, and that they are sustained, and working as the Good Friday Agreement outlined.''
He said that the commitments given by the two governments five years after the agreement to do things that they should have done long since are themselves conditional and are ongoing.
``Similarly issues like the human rights commission, which needs fixed, the failure to put proper resources into the equality commission, the lack of progress on crucial issues around the Irish language, the old issue of demilitarisation that needs to be sorted out, the unionist failure thus far for a date to commit to the transfer of power (for policing and justice), are all matters that need to be worked through,'' he said.
``The unilateral setting of deadlines in a pre-emptive way and setting the bar too high in focusing on only one element is the wrong way to go about this.''
Meanwhile, there were signs that unionists may be preparing for an election.
At a meeting of the East Belfast UUP association, David Trimble, while warning that the current negotiations could fail, portrayed Ian Paisley's hardline DUP as being incapable of adjusting to the ``endgame'' of the peace process.
``Because we are clearly in the endgame the DUP are desperately hoping that they can exploit the difficulties and pains of the transition in order to snatch the spoils of our successes,'' he said.
``Their problem, however, is that they have never yet been able to accept responsibility, never yet been able to lead. They seek a `renegotiation' (of the agreement) but have never successfully conducted a negotiation,'' said Mr Trimble.
He said the DUP had lost its nerve in negotiations. ``They say they want changes but have produced no alternatives, no policies.''