DUP leader Ian Paisley today pulled out of a meeting that would have seen him come face to face with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.
The two party chiefs were due to take part in talks on a new programme for a future power-sharing government in the North of Ireland.
The decision to pull out was confirmed in Belfast just hours before the negotiations were due to start and followed a new row over whether Sinn Fein MP and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness would swear an oath to support the PSNI police and the rule of law next month.
If agreement is reached, the DUP leader and the Sinn Fein chief negotiator are due to be installed as First and Deputy First Minister on November 24th in one of a series of choreographed moves towards the return of powers from London and Belfast by March 26th next year.
But Mr Paisley’s son, Ian jnr, said: “The party leader will not be going to today’s meeting. We need to talk with the [British] government about these matters before he starts going to programme for government meetings.”
Earlier, a DUP spokesman said they were “alarmed” at the suggestion that a ministerial vow to support the police would not come into effect until next March even though Mr McGuinness is due to be nominated as Deputy First Minister in November.
As a republican, Mr McGuinness would have obvious problems in supporting British rule and policing in Ireland, but would find less difficulty supporting a Six County police service under locally devolved rule. The pledge demand is being seen in the context of previous DUP demands for repentance and humiliation.
British and Irish government officials regarded the first meeting of the new Programme for Government Committee as a significant development for the peace process in the wake of last week’s breakthrough at the St Andrews talks in Scotland.
Under the St Andrews Agreement, which the parties have to give their assent to by November 10th, there are a number of staging posts before power-sharing returnd to the North next year.
The governments had hoped today’s meeting would be part of the process of building trust and confidence between the two parties ahead of full devolution next March. There had also been speculation that the encounter involving Mr Paisley and Mr Adams would have represented the first official direct talks between the two parties.