A claim by senior Sinn Fein figure Mr Martin McGuinness that unionism is in its "dying kick" has provoked indignant but contrasting responses from the North's two main unionist parties.
Meanwhile, Mr Charles Flanagan, the Fine Gael spokesman on the North, accused Sinn Fein president Mr Gerry Adams of chillingly and frighteningly "stoking tribal fires" by failing to declare that the IRA "war" is over.
The Ulster Unionist Party rejected as "insane" Mr McGuin ness's dismissal of unionism while the DUP exploited the Sinn Fein Mid-Ulster MP's remarks to launch another attack on the UUP and its leader, Mr David Trimble. Speaking at the West Belfast festival on Wednesday night, Mr McGuinness said divisions within unionism marked the beginning of its demise in its present form. "Unionism is in the greatest crisis Ireland has ever seen. That's reflected in the plight of the Orange Order at this time," he said.
"It's all rather sad, it is all rather pathetic. But in reality it is the dying kick, in my opinion, of unionism as we have known it over the course of recent times." UUP security spokesman Mr Ken Maginnis described Mr McGuinness's remarks as "insane". The real party in crisis was Sinn Fein. He said the Sinn Fein Assembly member's comments were designed to distract attention from Mr Adams's failure to say the IRA war was over.
"Republicanism is the one in a dilemma. It cannot cope with real democracy and yet it recognises that the so-called armed struggle has been a failure," Mr Maginnis said.
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr, a DUP Assembly member, saw some merit in Mr McGuinness's comments. "Martin McGuinness is of course talking about the Official Unionist Party. The fact that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness can say `Well done, David' is evidence of the fact that David Trimble has played his part in finishing off the values and principles of traditional unionism," he added.
The only recourse for unionists now was to accept the analysis of the anti-Belfast Agreement DUP.
"By doing that unionism will be rescued from the trap set by IRA/Sinn Fein and pursued by David Trimble. Then we will be able to finish with republicanism and stop its rampant growth," said Mr Paisley.
Mr Flanagan, the Fine Gael spokesman on the North, said Mr Adams's "refusal to confirm the IRA terror campaign was over" was a "major stumbling block on the road to normal democratic politics".
Responding to an article by Mr Adams in Wednesday's Irish News, he accused him of "stoking tribal fires" which at this time was "both chilling and frightening".
In the article, Mr Adams said "the war would be over" when all those engaged in violence stopped, when the British army began demilitarising, when prisoners were released and when there was justice, equality and an acceptable police force.
This, said Mr Flanagan, amounted to a "militant republican wish-list with no regard for objectivity, compromise or any appreciation that the rebuilding of a divided society is an all-embracing process". ein or indeed any other party to reserve the right to engage in acts of violence against those in society with whom they disagree," he said. "Sinn Fein should respond unconditionally for the decades of mayhem and murder inflicted on the people of Northern Ireland and beyond, and they should proceed to categorically condemn punishment beatings inflicted by republicans on a daily basis."
Meanwhile, as paramilitary prisoners yesterday received their early release application forms from the Sentence Review Commissioners, the human rights body Families Against Intimidation and Terror (FAIT) said the releases should not go ahead.
More than 400 IRA, UVF and UDA prisoners received the 15page release application forms. Prisoners are asked to provide assurances they do not support organisations perceived as not in ceasefire - the INLA, LVF, Continuity IRA, and "Real" IRA. Mr Glyn Roberts, of FAIT, accused the British government of having "dangerously compromised" the Belfast Agreement.
"The Good Friday Agreement states that paramilitary prisoners will only be released if their organisations are involved in unequivocal ceasefires. The paramilitary ceasefires have been well and truly shattered on dozens of occasions," Mr Roberts said.
Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, anti-agreement UUP MP, said Northern Secretary Dr Mo Mowlam's comment on Wednesday that she believed for the IRA, UVF and UDA "the war was over", was "absolutely incredible".
"How she can come to such a conclusion in the light of ongoing violence perpetrated by all of these organisations defies belief."