Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has called for the British government to use its “savage” and “significant” powers against Sinn Fein.
His party is pressing the British government to recall the Assembly with a view to imposing “sanctions” -- political discrimination -- on Sinn Fein.
This follows unsubstantiated allegations, endorsed by both Dublin and London, of the involvement of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein negotiators in the robbery of a Belfast bank before Christmas.
The allegations are part of a concerted political attack on Sinn Fein in advance of the British general election in May. Political opponents, aided by the two governments, are determined to prevent it from becoming the largest party in the North of Ireland.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has rejected the accusations as “rubbish”.
Next week, British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy is reported to be planning to issue a sanction against Sinn Fein in the British parliament next week.
And Ulster Unionists are keen for what a spokesman called “centre parties” -- themselves and the nationalist SDLP -- to regain control of the talks process.
According to the SDLP, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has already pressed the party to consider an arrangement with the Ulster Unionists.
Yesterday Trimble said legislation enacted in 2003 could facilitate the exclusion of Sinn Fein from government.
If the recalled Assembly failed to pass an exclusion motion the British government should then use its own powers to exclude Sinn Fein and allow the other parties to continue without them.
“The teeth are in this process and have to be used. If the Secretary of State does not announce that next Wednesday then I think huge damage will be done to his credibility, the government’s credibility and the process as a whole,” Mr Trimble said.
Republican protesters blockaded key government buildings yesterday.
More than 100 Sinn Fein activists occupied the foyers and front entrances of Windsor House and Bedford House in Belfast city centre. Similar protests took place in Derry.
Doors were chained and padlocked, and workers prevented from entering or leaving the buildings. The protesters carried placards and banners saying “143,000 voters are not wrong -- we will not be criminalised”.
Meanwhile, Gerry Adams has said that reports of remarks he made in Madrid on Wednesday are misleading. He denied that a comment he made on Spanish radio was an attempt to distance his party from the Provisional IRA on the matter.
During an interview, he said: “No one knows who robbed the Northern Bank. An opinion has been given that the IRA was involved. The IRA has said it was not and I believe them.
“Now, maybe I’m wrong. What I can say categorically is that Sinn Fein was not involved.”
A number of news media seized on the “maybe I’m wrong” remark to report that Mr Adams was experiencing doubts about the IRA.
Mr Adams released a statement on Wednesday night saying: “Remarks I made in Madrid in respect of the Northern Bank robbery have been misrepresented.
“I made it clear that the IRA has said it was not involved and that I believed its disclaimer.
“Any other interpretation of my remarks is malicious and misleading.”
In other related news, a legal challenge by Sinn Fein to an earlier British decision to cut its political funding has been refused by the High Court.
Republicans had argued that Mr Murphy’s decision to fine the party 120,000 pounds over allegations of IRA activity in 2002 was discriminatory. The allegations of an IRA ‘spy ring’, which led to the collapse of the Belfast Assembly, were never substantiated.
Sinn Fein pointed out the purpose of the funds was to assist the political parties to negotiate a resolution of the peace stalemate during the suspension of the Belfast Assembly.
Speaking outside the court, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said: “In the years that republicans have gone to the courts, they would not be overly surprised at the kind of political decision made today - and let me be clear it was a political decision.
“The sanctions were wrong in the first place, they do not work and the British government should remove the sanctions.
“The judgment was a political judgment, it is not within the Good Friday Agreement.”