Ian Paisley has admitted for the first time that his party is seeking to humiliate the Provisional IRA.

Speaking in Ballymena at the weekend, the DUP leader said “the IRA needs to be humiliated. And they need to wear their sackcloth and ashes, not in a backroom but openly. And we have no apology to make for the stand we are taking.” The comments were broadcast for the first time last night on BBC television.

In a relatively muted reaction, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said his movement was “highly offended” by the comments, and called for the DUP leader to show “humility”.

But the veteran unionist hardliner, speaking after a meeting with the British Prime Minister in London today, defiantly repeated his ‘sack cloth and ashes’ comments. Nevertheless, he said the talks were progressing.

“We are moving, I believe, in the right direction but there are some very important matters that still have to be dealt with and the most important matter is decommissioning. Until the people of Northern Ireland see that the arms of the IRA are put away ... we can’t really look any further.”

The DUP leader is demanding that photographic evidence of two decommissioning acts be taken, so the public can view images of the destruction. He is also insisting that a churchman appointed by the DUP should be free to speak to the media, about witnessing the destruction of IRA weapons, over a proposed two-week period.

Speculation is continuing as to whether Sinn Féin will bow to these demands. Questions remain over the timescales for the return of local devolved government in the Belfast Assembly, and the sincerity of the DUP’s commitment to share power with Sinn Féin.

Efforts to boost republican confidence have certainly not been helped by Paisley’s ‘humiliation’ remarks. While there has been little sign to date of internal opposition to the Sinn Féin leadership’s strategy, republicans have been dismayed by the progress of the negotiations.

However, a statement on Sunday claiming to come from disaffected members of the Provisional IRA -- opposing arms decommissioning and threatening a split -- could not be verified. The statement did not emerge through republican news channels and was quickly dismissed by Sinn Féin.

Speaking before a meeting with 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dublin today, Mr Adams said that both sides needed to be moderate in their comments at a delicate time.

He said Sinn Féin had entered the talks to get “a comprehensive agreement” and that comments such as those from Mr Paisley made it more difficult.

Mr Adams said: “We’re not about the politics of humiliation, we’re about the politics of liberation. We just have to be temperate in our language. But let’s not be diverted by any of these comments.”

But republicans have drawn encouragement from apparent efforts by Bertie Ahern to urge the British government to move speedily to demilitarise their military presence in the North of Ireland.

Mr Adams said it was a “very welcome development”. He was speaking after a Sinn Féin delegation met Mr Ahern in Dublin today. The party’s chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said the purpose of the meeting was to “get in a row all the unresolved bits of this tremendous chore”.

Mr Adams said the focus of today’s meeting was demilitarisation which he described as a “hugely important issue”. British forces remain in republican heartlands, he said, adding that the commitment made seven years under the Good Friday Agreement on demilitarisation must now be tied down.

There was concern among the Sinn Féin leadership that the talks were dragging on. “We are concerned that the timeframe is stretching. We want to see all of this done very, very quickly indeed,” said Mr Adams.

“I don’t want to play up expectations - the fact is we don’t have a deal done yet. But it is our firm view that because we want a deal that if we keep pushing at it we will get a deal.

“When will it happen? At this point I just don’t know but we’re keeping pushing at it. And we don’t even contemplate failure.”

By contrast, the DUP appear to taking their time in the negotiations. Further talks are scheduled between Mr Paisley and Tony Blair on Friday, and government officials are understood to be be planning to continue efforts to put together a deal at the weekend.

Bertie Ahern said this evening he could not see short term solutions to at least two issues in the peace talks. The Taoiseach also told the Dublin parliament he could not see an agreement being reached between the parties by Friday.

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