UUP threat plunges Executive into fresh crisis
Northern Ireland's power-sharing Executive has been plunged into fresh crisis after the Ulster Unionists announced their intent to walk away from the administration over claims the Provisional IRA still exists.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said trust in Sinn Fein had been shattered by the revelations and his party had been left with no option other than to resign from the five party coalition and form an opposition in the Stormont Assembly.
"Without trust there is nothing," Mr Nesbitt said.
While the dramatic move by one of the three minor coalition partners will not automatically trigger the collapse of the administration, it does throw its future into serious doubt, as pressure will now mount on the region's largest party, the Democratic Unionists, to follow suit.
If the DUP left the Executive it would fold immediately.
Sinn Fein accused the UUP of cynical politicking and claimed the party was trying to contrive a crisis to gain an electoral edge over the DUP ahead of next year's Assembly poll.
The UUP decision comes after the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said structures of the PIRA are still operating, and some of its members were involved in the murder of Belfast father-of-nine Kevin McGuigan two weeks ago.
It is almost 20 years since the Provisional IRA's last ceasefire and a decade on from the supposed decommissioning of its weapons.
The UUP's one minister in an administration made up of 13 ministers and two junior ministers will resign next week if Mr Nesbitt's recommendation is supported by the party's ruling executive on Saturday - an endorsement that is widely expected.
Under the system used to allocate ministries, the DUP would take on the Regional Development brief vacated by the UUP's Danny Kennedy.
An Ulster Unionist exit from the Executive would be highly symbolic given the party was one of the architects of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that paved the way for nationalists and unionists to share power. The accord did not envisage an Assembly with an official opposition.
Mr Nesbitt claimed Sinn Fein's continual denials about the IRA had punctured a hole in the fabric of the agreement.
"We are in a bad place, but this can be fixed," he said.
"But the IRA need to go away and stop terrorising their own communities.
"So do the UDA, and UVF and Red Hand Commando - and the rest.
"And I wouldn't argue if they took down their paramilitary flags on the way out.
"Our vision remains that of a Northern Ireland that is totally peaceful and where everyone prospers - republicans, nationalists and unionists equally."
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness accused the UUP of playing party politics.
He said on Twitter: "This decision by the UUP is more about inter Unionist rivalry than their & others feigned concern about our unequivocal commitment to #Peace."
At the weekend, PSNI chief constable George Hamilton said that the IRA still exists but is not engaged in terrorism, instead pursuing peaceful, political republicanism.
However, the PSNI also said some PIRA members were involved in the murder of former IRA man Mr McGuigan, 53, in co-operation with a group styling itself Action Against Drugs. Detectives said there is no evidence the killing was sanctioned by the IRA leadership.
Mr McGuigan was suspected by some in the republican movement of involvement in the murder of former IRA leader Gerard "Jock" Davison in the nearby Markets area of Belfast three months ago.
Police believe his killing was a revenge attack by Mr Davison's republican associates.
The DUP accused the UUP of hypocrisy, noting that the party sat in an Executive with Sinn Fein before the IRA had decommissioned.
"The UUP record of government is one of crisis and collapse," said DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
"The UUP previously sat in government with Sinn Fein before decommissioning and whenever the PIRA was armed and active. For the UUP to try and rewrite history is downright hypocritical and misleading."
Mr Dodds said if anyone should be excluded from Executive it should be Sinn Fein, not unionists, claiming "profound questions" had been raised about the republican party's fitness for government.
The DUP is set to meet Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers to discuss the situation tomorrow and is seeking an "urgent meeting" with Prime Minister David Cameron.
"Our message is clear: the duty of every responsible politician is to ensure that those who are in breach of their commitments to exclusively democratic and peaceful methods are the ones who are punished," added Mr Dodds.
"It is republicans who are responsible for the current situation and it is on republicans that the pressure should be maintained.
"If anyone should be excluded from government in Northern Ireland for wrongdoing, it is Sinn Fein, not unionists.
"So there is a clear onus on the other Northern Ireland parties to recognise what needs to be done.
"The Secretary of State must recognise that action must be taken to ensure that government in Northern Ireland only consists of those committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
"The DUP will not turn a blind eye to the implications of the Chief Constable's statement. If others do not act with us to punish the wrongdoers then make no mistake we will do what is right for unionism and for Northern Ireland.
"The DUP entered the Executive on the basis that all parties in it must be committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and full support for the police, the courts and the rule of law.
"That remains the basis and there can be no fudge between support for the rule of law and those who maintain the capacity to engage in terror."