Britain's most senior policeman has delivered a shocking report on the extent of plotting between RUC and British army officers and loyalist paramilitaries to kill suspected republicans.
Sir John Stevens, the chief of London's Metropolitan Police, found that the murders of solicitor Pat Finucane and teenager Adam Lambert in the late 1980s by loyalist paramilitaries were preventable. The RUC should also have caught Mr Finucane's murderers, he found.
"I conclude there was collusion in both murders and the circumstances surrounding them."
The report is not expected to have an immediate or significant impact on the deadlocked political process. British and Irish officials will maintain low-level contact with republicans and the other main parties over the weekend to establish if there is any remaining prospect of movement. However the mood was more pessimistic than optimistic, British and Irish sources conceded last night.
Speaking to party members in Newry, Co Down, last night Mr Gerry Adams said Sunday night's IRA statement was of "unparalleled significance" but he indicated that the IRA was not in a position to meet the British and Irish governments' demand for "clarity and certainty" that it is ending all paramilitary activity. The statement, he said, was "clear and unambiguous. It contains a number of highly significant and positive developments unparalleled in any previous statement from the IRA leadership in this or any other phase of the struggle."
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, said the Stevens findings were of the "utmost gravity" but Government sources said the report was being viewed "in total isolation" from the talks process.The North's Director of Public Prosecutions is considering 57 files prepared by Sir John in connection with his inquiry. More files may follow and the investigation is widening, with new lines of inquiry at an early stage.
Sir John's interim report contains devastating confirmation that intelligence officers inside the police and the military ran illegal operations which cost innocent lives, prolonged the Troubles and compromised Mr Douglas Hogg, a former British government minister.
He also accused the RUC and the British army of obstructing his inquiries, withholding information, leaking sensitive information and misleading his investigators. He said a fire at his team's incident room was a case of arson.
The findings, which confirm allegations by human rights observers and nationalists, have fuelled renewed calls for an independent, international judicial inquiry. He also held that the controversial comments of Mr Hogg, a former junior minister at the Home Office, were not justifiable. Mr Hogg told the Commons in January 1989, days before Mr Finucane's murder, that some Northern Ireland solicitors were unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA.
Mrs Geraldine Finucane's call for a wider judicial inquiry was echoed by nationalist politicians. Belfast lord mayor Mr Alex Maskey - himself a loyalist target - said only a wider inquiry would get to the heart of the collusion question.SDLP leader Mr Mark Durkan spoke of a "betrayal of the nationalist community by the state"."What did Ronnie Flanagan know? What did Hugh Annesley know? What did Tom King know? What did Margaret Thatcher know?"
As behind-the-scenes contact between the Government and republicans continued, Mr Ahern and Mr Blair spoke twice by telephone yesterday afternoon. It is understood Mr Ahern was involved in wider talks until 5 a.m. yesterday before returning to Dublin at noon from the EU summit in Greece.
Despite claims by the Minister for Justice, Mr McDowell, that the entire initiative would be shelved for many months if there were no solution, the contacts are expected to continue over the weekend. The two governments will review the situation at the end of the holiday.
Sinn Féin chairman Mr Mitchel McLaughlin told BBC's Hearts and Minds last night that the prospects of a deal in the coming days are "increasingly unlikely".
If next week's attempt fails, the process will be "parked" until the autumn, said British and Irish sources. The blueprint containing proposals on demilitarisation, IRA fugitives, policing, criminal justice, human rights, equality, etc would also be shelved, they added.