The British government has refused nationalist calls to lift its suspension of the power-sharing institutions in the North of Ireland following Wednesday's election to the Belfast Assembly.
The British Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, said today it would be ``highly unlikely'' that the parties in North could agree to form an administration within the required six-week time period.
Mr Murphy has instead announced that a review of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement would take place early in the New Year, and that he was writing to all the parties to invite them to take part.
Both the Sinn Fein President, Mr Gerry Adams, and the SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, had urged the British government to restore devolution as soon as possible.
Mr Murphy said: ``I don't think we should unsuspend and restore it now. I don't think that would be wise.
``Everybody knows that if we restored the Assembly tomorrow then we would have six weeks according to the rules to establish a government.
``It doesn't take a political genius to work out it's highly unlikely.''
After counts were completed in all 18 constituencies in the North, Ian Paisley's hardline Democratic Unionist Party emerged on Friday as the largest grouping in the Assembly. The DUP holds 30 seats in the 108-seat chamber, followed by David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party at 27, Sinn Fein at 24 seats and the nationalist SDLP at 18. Other smaller groupings and independents accounted for the remaining nine seats.
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Ian Paisley, said yesterday he would not be willing to accept the position of First Minister in an administration that included Sinn Fein members.
He again said he would not sit down and negotiate with Sinn Fein.
He told BBC Radio: ``I don't accept the principle that we must sit down with armed terrorists who have enough weapons in their possession to blow up the whole of Northern Ireland.''
Asked if he could accept the title of First Minister, Dr Paisley said: ``Not with IRA/Sinn Fein in government.'' He added: ``I believe we have a golden opportunity now to have this matter settled once and for all. If you are going to take part in the government of Northern Ireland, you can't have an armed army to use in blackmailing the British government and trying to get more concessions.''
Sinn Fein Assembly member Alex Maskey said Dr Paisley could not be allowed to renegotiate the Belfast Agreement. He told Today : ``70 per cent of the elected representatives are from pro-Agreement parties. The Good Friday Agreement is a treaty between two governments and has been endorsed by a referendum in Ireland as a whole, so it is not something that can be tinkered with.
``A new agreement would require a new treaty and a referendum. It's not a matter for one party to say they will turn that agreement on its head. The DUP must realise that they can't usurp the will of the people,'' Mr Maskey said.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said today there could be no renegotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
In a speech to his new Assembly team at Stormont, Mr Adams said the DUP must not have a veto on implementing the agreement.
He said: ``There can be no re-negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. That is our position and we make no bones about it. The principle structures and obligations of that agreement cannot and will not be subverted.''
Mr Adams, whose party overtook the SDLP as the largest nationalist group in the Assembly, denied that the current situation was a stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
He added: ``Sinn Fein recognises and respects the mandates of all the other parties. We have our own analysis and policies but this does not prevent us from listening and engaging with our opponents. On the contrary, unlike the DUP we are not afraid of dialogue. We are very much in favour of it - that is why our party has sought meetings with all the other parties and with the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister.''
Mr Adams said that it was the DUP's choice whether to participate in the power sharing administration but it could not act as a veto on other elements of the agreement.
``It is therefore up to Mr Blair along with the Taoiseach to proceed with their commitments on policing, the criminal justice system, demilitarisation, the equality agenda, human rights, the Irish language and other matters including OTRs (Republicans on the run from conflict-related prosecutions).''
He added: ``Sinn Fein will engage in good faith with the (British) Government and the other parties and we look to everyone to play a positive leadership role.''
Meanwhile, pressure is growing on the DUP to face up to its responsibilities as the dominant unionist party to protect and advance the peace process.
The DUP's deputy leader Peter Robinson yesterday denied that he belonged to a party of ``wreckers''.
Speaking ahead of today's meeting with the British Secretary of State, Mr Robinson insisted that his party, famous for its intense anti-nationalist rhetoric, had a positive agenda.
``Do they really believe voters in Northern Ireland would have voted for a party of wreckers?'' he said.
``The reality is that we have a positive agenda, an agenda for change.''
The DUP has insisted that the Good Friday Agreement must be renegotiated to create a new settlement acceptable to unionists. The DUP has so far provided little basis to believe that it has an alternative.
BACK TO THE POLLS?
Many already believe that the deadlock will only be resolved by another election. it is thought that the undoubted desire of northerners for stable, devolved government will eventually lead to the election of more pro-Agreement candidates.
But Mr Robinson has warned the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, against holding another election.
He claimed Mr Blair would receive ``another black eye'' from voters if he tries to hold Assembly elections again early next year.
The east Belfast MP said: ``You can imagine how the unionist electorate would react were he to say that we had to have another election because he did not like how they voted.''
Mr Robinson was commenting as the DUP's 30-strong Assembly team prepared to hold its first meeting at Stormont.
He said his party's negotiators would be keen to establish whether the planned review would address the issues his party had been mandated to pursue.
The East Belfast MP said: ``We want to know that we are not going to be restricted or limited in how we deal with our supporters' concerns.
``The Government cannot ignore the fact that there is now a 2-1 majority in unionism who are arguing for change.''
Meanwhile, Mr Murphy said that the fundamental principles of the Good Friday agreement must remain.
He said nothing could alter the principles of power sharing between nationalism and unionism, north/-south relationships or that the principle of consent was central to politics in the North.
``The agreement says we should review the operation, the workings of the Good Friday Agreement,' Mr Murphy said.
``What it gives, is an opportunity to the parties in the assembly to talk about the issues that affect them.''
Mr Robinson said that republicans must not be allowed in government until the IRA was dismantled.
``They must give up violence. They must stand down their terror machines. They must hand over their weapons of destruction that have been held illegally,'' the assembly member for East Belfast said.
The Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, said there was scope for discussion of many of the DUP's issues with the present peace process.
The DUP had identified shortfalls in the agreement over accountability, stability, efficiency and effectiveness that could be looked at, he said.
``I respect everybody's mandate, including the DUP, and I look forward to trying to build on the success that has been the peace process,'' Mr Ahern added.