The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has set a deadline for a resolution of the deadlock in the northern peace process in September, and warned that he could abandon central elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Blair set the deadline in a joint declaration with 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
He warned that power-sharing under the Agreement could be discontinued unless a new deal was forthcoming on ending and disarming the IRA, and winning support for the PSNI police from Sinn Féin.
The hardening position of the two governments may be driven by the growth of Sinn Féin in both parts of Ireland. In elections earlier this month, the party became the third largest in Ireland, winning seats in the European parliament for the first time.
However, there was speculation that back-room discussions involving Sinn Féin and the DUP over the summer could yet lead to a breakthrough.
Blair said they had set aside several days after the summer for intensive negotiations with the parties, but if that failed the search would start for an alternative.
He said a “point of decision” had been reached over the deadlock, under which the Belfast Assembly at Stormont has been suspended for almost two years. “For the credibility of the process, for our own credibility, we need to make sure that happens,” he said.
He suggested that the failure of the talks could lead to the end of Stormont.
“Most people in Northern Ireland realise you can’t continue with an Assembly, people being paid salaries and not doing anything,” he told a press conference this afternoon.
Mr Blair identified the “four key issues” as ending paramilitary activity, decommissioning, the institutions and policing. He said these were well known, but pointedly did not refer to British demilitarisation, human rights or equality.
There was a “real recognition” among the parties as well as the two governments “that it is time to come to the point of decision”, he said.
“The people of Northern Ireland want that.”
Mr Ahern said the two governments would use the summer to prepare for the negotiations.
“The question is whether we can come to a final understanding on these issues,” he said.
“We can’t keep having discussions that do not lead us to ultimate conclusions.”
The Ulster Unionist Party’s David Trimble said failure to resolve the issues in September would leave “a huge question of credibility about the process”.
Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin said today’s meetings represented a “missed opportunity” and that the two governments had accepted a unionist time frame.
He said: “We were here in London to do business today and as we left, all of us in Sinn Féin looked on today as a missed opportunity.
“With September now the deadline being set by the governments, what we were looking for today was for them to convince us that this is a serious process so we could convince others.
“Unfortunately we did not get any positive answers to that and we are mindful of the fact that there have been many missed deadlines in the recent past.”