Dr John Reid has suggested the onus is now on the IRA to make a move on arms decommissioning to help end the political impasse. In a television interview, the Northern Secretary acknowledged that putting its weapons beyond use would be a difficult step for the IRA to take.

He pointed out, however, that the IRA had said that it was prepared to take that step. Dr Reid added that he hoped the IRA would do so soon. If not the North would be facing a serious problem, he said.

Speaking on BBC1's Breakfast with Frost this morning, Dr Reid said: "What I did yesterday was extend the time during which we may have a breathing space and I would hope that no-one, in or outside Northern Ireland, will underestimate the serious position we are now in.

"A window of opportunity comes along every so often. If you miss that window of opportunity you can sometimes be set back by years."

The Northern Secretary restored the power sharing government in the North at midnight following a 24-hour suspension. The latest crisis was sparked when Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble resigned on 1 July as head of the Northern Ireland Assembly over the lack of disarmament by the IRA.