Warning that he would not be "bluffed," Protestant leader Ian Paisley said Saturday the latest attempt to achieve peace in Northern Ireland was doomed unless the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA) took immediate and verifiable steps to disarm.
The 78-year-old firebrand said he was amazed to learn that only five days before the deadline for replies to an Anglo-Irish peace proposal, the IRA still has not discussed the question of disarmament with Canadian General John de Chastelain, who is charged with overseeing the disarmament process.
"This process is being held back by the Republican movement," charged Paisley, whose hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insists that the decommissioning of the IRA is the last obstacle to a secure peace.
"They must meet immediately with de Chastelain or we will know that the whole exercice was one of deception by Sinn Fein-IRA," Paisley said. Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA.
Paisley said the republicans were "not dealing with David Trimble," the moderate Protestant leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Northern Ireland conflict and who is regarded by the Paisleyites as being soft.
"We are not going to be bluffed ... on a matter that affects the lives of the present and future generation of Ulster people," Paisley said.
The British and Irish governments have given both sides in the conflict until Wednesday to respond to new proposals, most of them secret.
The question of disarmament is the key sticking point. Paisley is demanding detailed photographic evidence that the IRA has destroyed its weapons.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams enjoined the Republican movement not to cede to pressure by the old Protestant chief.
"The days of humiliation are over," he said.
Adams added that he was incapable of saying whether Paisley's faction was really ready to reach an agreement.
"I don't know, and if I may say so, I don't know if anyone else knows." he said. "There's a small possibility that even Ian Paisley doesn't know."
Paisley Saturday held talks with de Chastelain, who reportedly said he had yet to meet with the IRA to discuss details of the disarmament process.
"It is amazing that the Prime Minister [Tony Blair] is in the business of setting deadlines for the coming week when this most important matter has not been discussed with those whom we expect to decommission," Paisley said.
Both Catholic and Protestant parties have been holding talks with British and Irish leaders aimed at reviving the suspended power-sharing institutions in the British province.
Paisley refuses to deal directly with Sinn Fein, and wants the IRA to be conclusively wound-up as a paramilitary organization, giving up all its guns and explosives.
Three decades of sectarian bloodshed between Northern Ireland's Protestants, who want to remain part of Britain, and Catholics, who favor a united Ireland, largely ended with the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement. But a semi-autonomous, power-sharing government set up under the treaty was suspended in October 2002 amid a breakdown in trust following allegations of IRA espionage.