Hardline unionist demands for the Provisional IRA to undertake a public show of disarming is now the biggest stumbling block to the restoration of the Belfast Assembly at Stormont, it has been confirmed.

The 26-County Prime Minister, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, warned that if people made “unreasonable demands which carry a resonance of humiliation for any side”, these would be entirely counter-productive and “would not work”.

He all but confirmed a report that the IRA is willing to disarm by the end of the year as part of a deal with Ian Paisley’s DUP.

He said people would be “amused” if they knew the issues currently preventing progress.

“We are within a fortnight of making a decision,” he added. “So we can crack the outstanding points and do it comprehensibly and successfully or decide, having almost got there for the third time in a two-year period, to leave it aside.”

Reports have suggested the DUP is waiting until after next year’s British general election to forge a deal. Mr Ahern urged the party to seize the current opportunity to share power with nationalists. “The moment to achieve the historic step has arrived,” he declared.

Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness has said that the Provisional IRA have made an “unprecedented and historic offer” -- but that the DUP are not up to the task.

He told Irish radio: “It has now become clear that the Democratic Unionist Party -- even in the face of what everybody concedes, and the Governments concede, is an unprecedented and historic offer from the IRA leadership -- that the DUP are not prepared to do the business.”

The DUP is still refusing to talk directly with Sinn Féin representatives.

Mr McGuinness told Irish radio: “We don’t have any problem whatsoever in engaging with the elected representatives of the Unionist people, the difficulty resides on the DUP side.”

Attempts to implement the Agreement have been frustrated for several years by the grandstanding of David Trimble’s UUP and now Ian Paisley’s DUP, often with the support of the two governments.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are now coming under greater pressure to stand up to the unionists before the peace process and their own credibility are irreversibly damaged.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, speaking in New York, raised the prospect of some form of “Joint Authority” last week. It was his first public reference to a possible ‘Plan B’, an unconfirmed contingency plan in the event of a failure to revive the political institutions. In this scenario, the Dublin and London governments would share the administration of the Six Counties -- until and unless unionists formally agreed to devolution.

The DUP quickly dismissed the idea. Former DUP Executive Minister Maurice Morrow said the notion was “pie in the sky”.

But Mr Ahern said the two governments were determined to press ahead “as partners and as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement”.

He insisted there were only a few issues outstanding and none of these was unbridgeable. Mr Blair and himself did not favour “parking” the process, he said, and hoped to finalise proposals for moving forward in the coming days.

Mr Ahern said the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning should be left to get on with its job of objectively verifying the process of IRA disarming.

He said if the will was there to make an accommodation, it ought to be possible to agree “such reasonable steps which maximise public confidence in the process of putting arms beyond use”.

The Taoiseach, in a speech to the Philosophical Society at Trinity College, added: “We also need to close gaps on commitments to participating in all of the political institutions of the Agreement and in regard to the critical area of policing and the related question of the devolution of justice and policing powers to the North’s Assembly.”

These, he said, raised “challenging questions” for the DUP - “specifically whether they are genuinely up for partnership politics or not”.

Mr Ahern said there had been “an unprecedented engagement” between his Government and the DUP over the past year and he had been impressed by the DUP’s “serious and professional approach”. But he said those who felt there might be some political advantage in “long-fingering” a deal on the restoration of the Northern institutions were “really wrong”.

A Sinn Féin delegation meanwhile met Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern in Dundalk yesterday.

Mr McGuinness said afterwards: “At present the DUP refuses to share power with nationalists and republicans. Until a time when unionists are prepared to work alongside the rest of us as equals, the two governments as the defenders of the Agreement must drive the process forward.”

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