By William James and Amanda Ferguson
LONDON/BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's First Minister returned to office on Tuesday, saying he hoped to know soon whether a deal could be reached to save the province's power-sharing government following clarification on the status of paramilitary groups.
Peter Robinson's move followed publication of a report that said all the main paramilitary groups from Northern Ireland's three-decade conflict, including the Provisional IRA, remained in existence but were not planning attacks.
In the report, which underscored both the weaknesses and successes of the 1998 power-sharing Belfast agreement that has brought broad peace to the British province, Northern Ireland's police service and Britain's MI5 intelligence agency said the men with guns still existed and had carried out recent murders.
But they also said that none of the paramilitary groups from the 30-years of violence, the so-called "Troubles", was planning attacks and that the leadership of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), ruled by an "Army Council," was committed to the peace process and achieving a united Ireland through peaceful means.
The 1998 deal ended three decades of tit-for-tat violence between Catholic Irish nationalists favoring unification with the Irish republic and their Protestant rivals, who want to remain British, that killed 3,600 people.
Last month, Northern Ireland was taken to the brink of its worst crisis since that deal after a murder linked to former members of the IRA prompted Robinson to step aside.
Robinson agreed to resume his duties following the release of the report, along with other ministers of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who resigned.
He said he expected to know soon whether talks between the province's political parties would succeed in saving the power-sharing government.
"I wouldn't like them to go beyond the end of this month. By the end of this month I would want to have a very clear picture about whether it was doable," Robinson told reporters, adding that there had been a measure of agreement" so far.
His partner in the mandatory devolved government, Martin McGuinness of the nationalist Sinn Fein party, himself a former Provisional IRA Commander, reiterated that the IRA leadership had successfully moved from conflict to peace.
"Let me be absolutely clear and unequivocal. Sinn Fein is now the only organization involved in the Republican struggle and in Republican activism," the Deputy first minister said in a statement.
The report was commissioned to help provide a factual basis for the talks between Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist parties and avoid the collapse of Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration.
The assessment, which accused paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide of profiting from fuel-laundering, drug dealing and extortion, said the most current serious threat in Northern Ireland was posed by dissident republican groups who rejected the 1998 peace settlement.
It described the threat as "severe" and said that at any given time a terrorism attack was highly likely.
It said the Provisional IRA (PIRA) remains in existence though in a much reduced form, adding that the IRA was ruled by a Provisional Army Council (PAC).
"PIRA members believe that the PAC oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy," the assessment said, adding it judged that "this has a wholly political focus".
The link to the Army Council prompted criticism south of the border where Sinn Fein is the second largest opposition party and growing in popularity with an ultimate aim of uniting Ireland.
"How does that work if Sinn Fein are in government (in the Irish Republic)? Answerable to the Irish people or the Army Council?" Lucinda Creighton, leader of fellow opposition party RENUA, said on Twitter.
(Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Editing by Stephen Addison)