DUP hardliners led by Ian Paisley have insisted that any breakthrough in negotiations this month will require an overhaul of Sinn Féin as a political party and the end of the IRA.

As the British and Irish governments attempt to devise a common agenda for talks in southern England in the middle of this month, the 78-year-old DUP leader Ian Paisley lashed out at “romanist” journalists who, he said, had lied about the state of his health.

Flanked by the extreme wing of his party on Wednesday, Dr Paisley appeared frail but determined.

“I hope to take a few thousand pounds off some newspapers who lied about me. I would say it’s just because I happen to be a Protestant and journalists happen to be Romanists, that they think they can take it out on me,” he went on.

“I am here. This is Stormont, and I will be here. And you fellows can rave as much as you like, but you, maybe, will be in your coffins before I will be in mine.”

He linked his party’s involvement in talks with Sinn Féin to “the disbanding of their weaponry and the end of IRA/Sinn Féin as a political party. We have made that absolutely clear, and we don’t want any hedging. Everything else depends on that.”

He characterised the IRA as “rubbish” that must be cleared away before the DUP would talk to Sinn Féin or sign up to a deal.

But at a confused solo press conference on Thursday, he suggested that the DUP would not share power with Sinn Féin even were the IRA to disarm and disband.

He declared: “The IRA must be finished with, once and for all, and that Sinn Féin must be a new party that is not tied [to the IRA],” he told reporters. “They must be out of that, and there must be a new political deal.”

He was asked if he would talk face to face with the Sinn Féin president, Mr Gerry Adams, were the IRA to disarm.

“Not as a Sinn Féiner,” he replied. “Sinn Féin is inextricably bound up with the IRA, and that relationship must be smashed and gone for ever.”

He suggested that, like Official Sinn Féin, which broke with Provisional Sinn Féin in 1972, the party should change its name and identity.

Paisley’s remarks have fuelled speculation over the different approaches being taken to the talks by the DUP hardliners led by Dr Paisley and the relative moderates in the party, such as deputy leader Peter Robinson and UUP rebel Jeffrey Donaldson.

Meanwhile, this week has also seen determinedly upbeat appraisals by Dublin’s Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and British Direct Ruler Paul Murphy about preparations for the talks in just over two weeks.

Paul Murphy repeated British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s declaration that a “point of decision” had been reached. The intervening two weeks would prove crucial, he said.

Mr Cowen said: “There is the prospect of a deal being done if the will is there to be demonstrated and if the issues are addressed to everyone’s satisfaction.”

He insisted the governments were considering only minor changes to improve the operation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, despite the DUP’s call for an entirely new agreement.

And the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned that a return of the Stormont Assembly in Belfast could be set back by two years unless progress is made in the talks.

Raising the stakes in advance of negotiations in Leeds Castle, Kent, Mr Ahern said the Government believed a short period exists in which to make progress. “We have a lot of the preparatory work done.

“Whether we can finish it at Leeds Castle, or around then, that is our agenda,” he told journalists in Government Buildings.

The Stormont Assembly has been suspended since October, 2002.

“We believe, as we head towards the first anniversary of the Assembly elections, that it is essential that we reach agreement,” the Taoiseach declared.

Her denied decisions could be put off until after elections to the London parliament next year, and pointed to a quiet marching season bar “one blip in the Ardoyne on the Twelfth”.

In parallel with the talks in England, the IRA must “resolve” disarming because the DUP would not “move on” unless that was concluded.

“Paramilitarism will have to be brought to a finality. They are the main issues and policing,” said Mr Ahern.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams admitted it would be difficult to achieve a breakthrough while the DUP refuses to talks to his party but nonetheless he believed agreement was possible at Leeds Castle. He said it was inevitable that the DUP eventually would talk but the problem was “what will happen in the meantime?”

“Whatever the DUP’s stance, we, as everyone else who lives on this island, have the right to equality. We are at this with a good heart. We are not deflected and we know that Paisleyism represents that aspect of unionism which is against the type of changes which are required,” added Mr Adams.

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