Jeffrey Donaldson has said that he believed the North was closer than it had ever been to seeing decommissioning become a reality. The hard-line Ulster Unionist MP added, however, that there was still someway to go. He was speaking ahead of an Ulster Unionist Party Executive meeting in Belfast.

Mr Donaldson also said that if there was a credible start to decommissioning, which could be properly verified, then the Ulster Unionist ministers could go back into government. He said that a one-off gesture on the part of the IRA would not be enough.

The three Unionist ministers resigned from the Stormont Executive last night because of the absence of decommissioning.

In a further development, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, have met on the fringes of the EU summit. Downing Street said that Mr Ahern and Mr Blair expressed the hope that moves would continue towards the implementation in full of the Good Friday Agreement.

Meanwhile, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has finished over an hour of talks with the Northern Secretary in Dublin. Brian Cowen said that they had discussed the resignation of the Unionist ministers from the Executive.

Mr Cowen said that although this development was "regrettable", he hoped that it was not irrevocable. Mr Cowen said that there was an urgent need for progress on all outstanding areas of the Good Friday Agreement, in particular the issues of putting arms beyond use and securing the stability of the institutions.

Dr John Reid said that people in Northern Ireland were weary and fed up that politicians who had committed to the Agreement had not managed to find a way to move it forward. He said that a “huge and unique opportunity” existed to resolve the outstanding issues, even at this late stage.

Reports that the IRA is to discuss decommissioning at an army convention this weekend have been denied by Sinn Féin's chief negotiator Martin McGuinness.

The reports suggested that the convention was set to take place under cover of a Sinn Féin Irish language seminar in County Meath. There is little doubt, however, that discussions are continuing within the Republican movement, where there is an acceptance that talking cannot go on indefinitely.

Gerry Adams has insisted that the crisis in the peace process should not be reduced to an issue of IRA arms. The Sinn Féin President said that any movement on Republican weapons has to be met with generosity with other people.

He reiterated that the British government and Unionists should meet their obligations. Mr Adams said that British government rhetoric was not enough. He insisted that any new context created by movement on IRA arms must be real and genuine.