Fears grow as IRA to issue a statement on it’s future

The Northern Ireland peace process is facing a time of great challenge and opportunity, Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness believes.

As speculation intensified that the IRA will issue a statement on its future in the coming days or hours, the Mid Ulster MP insisted republicans were up for the challenges ahead.

But he also stressed that he hoped all parties involved in the process would grab the opportunity.

"This is a time of great challenge but it also a time of great opportunity. So, are we up for it? Yes, we are," he said.

Mr McGuinness resisted saying whether the IRA would commit to embracing democracy but he insisted he wanted all sides to help move the peace process forward. "I hope it is in everybody's interests," he said.

Mr McGuinness was preparing to leave for the United States to brief President George Bush's advisers on Northern Ireland. He and his colleague, Sinn Fein's representative to the US, Rita O'Hare, will hold meetings in Washington and New York.

Observers have billed the trip as significant, as in the past senior Sinn Fein figures have traveled to the US ahead of key moves by the provisional IRA such as the 1994 ceasefire and acts of decommissioning.

Mr McGuinness said he would be briefing US officials and key figures in Irish-America, informs This is London.

Leading Irish American politicians snubbed Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, during his traditional tour of the United States on Patrick's Day in March.

Any statement is expected to help kick-start stalled talks on the province's political future although resolution is still seen as a long way off given traditional enmity between Protestants and Catholics.

Talks on reviving an assembly set up under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in which Catholics and Protestants together ran the province's affairs, broke down at the end of last year and are now at a standstill.

Dublin and London say IRA crime is scuppering progress.

Sinn Fein's main opponents, the protestant Democratic Unionist Party, refuse to sit in government with the Catholic party until the IRA publicly disarms reminds Reuters.

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