DUBLIN -- Northern Ireland's major Protestant party broke off relations with the Irish government yesterday after Prime Minister Bertie Ahern indicated he had accepted the IRA's refusal to provide photographs of disarmament.
Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley said his British Protestant party would not talk with Ahern's foreign minister or other officials during negotiations planned tomorrow at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.
''We have cut off from today all connections with the southern government in talks. As far as we are concerned, he is a man that can't be trusted," Paisley declared of Ahern.
Paisley, 78, pursued his protest despite taking what he called an apologetic telephone call from Ahern who, according to aides, contended that he had been describing the IRA's opposition to photos, not his own.
Ahern's apparent flip-flop illustrated the difficulty of reconciling the polarized demands of the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party backed by most of the north's Catholics. The furor it provoked also dimmed already fading hopes that a deal could be concluded this week.
Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain unveiled plans last week in Belfast designed to revive a joint Catholic-Protestant administration. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, polar opposites in Northern Ireland's politics, would jointly lead the coalition.
Northern Ireland's Good Friday accord of 1998 envisioned power-sharing as the best way to end the conflict over the British territory that has claimed more than 3,600 lives since 1969.
While the Democratic Unionists accepted the plans, Sinn Fein rejected them because they required the IRA to provide photographic proof of its full disarmament -- a principal Paisley demand.
The Anglo-Irish blueprint called for the photos to be published on the same day that Northern Ireland lawmakers formed a new power-sharing Cabinet. Ahern had called this a reasonable compromise.
But he seemed to reverse his stance yesterday after meeting Sinn Fein leaders in Dublin.
''We tried the issue of photographs. That's not workable. So we have to try and find some other way," Ahern said, standing alongside Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness after talks lasting an hour.
Adams, speaking after meeting Blair later in London, called the photographs demand ''dead and gone and buried."
Blair declined to comment.
Paisley -- who earlier this year opened normal relations with the Irish government after decades of boycott -- responded furiously. The Democratic Unionists already refuse to talk directly to Sinn Fein.
Paisley described Ahern's call as deeply apologetic -- and contradictory.
''I told him if he wanted to change his mind, he's entitled to do it, but that he should have had the courtesy to tell me first. . . . But then he said he wanted to see the photographs, too," Paisley said.
A spokesman at Ahern's office said the prime minister had sought to assure Paisley that, when he called the photos demand ''not workable," he was trying to describe the Sinn Fein-IRA position, not his own.
Later, Paisley said the call hadn't soothed his suspicion that Ahern was siding with Sinn Fein.
''We informed his office and his foreign secretary that, when he comes here on Wednesday, we'll not be seeing him," Paisley said.
The IRA was supposed to have disarmed fully by mid-2000 under terms of the Good Friday pact. A power-sharing coalition led by moderate Protestants and Catholics gained power in late 1999 but repeatedly broke down over the IRA's refusal to start disarming and other IRA-related arguments. It collapsed two years ago after police accused Sinn Fein of aiding an IRA spying operation.