Blair claims talks progress

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A DAY OF preliminary talks in Belfast ended yesterday with some intriguingly upbeat signs as Tony Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, laid new de-commissioning proposals before the local parties.

While there was no talk of breakthrough and no real negotiation throughout the day, some of the participants emerged to give the impression that the preliminaries had been more useful than had been expected. The hard bargaining is to begin on Monday when the two prime ministers return to Belfast for several days of talks.

Last night they said in a joint statement that their round of meetings with the various parties had been constructive and good-natured, adding that the party leaders realised the importance of the exercise.

They said all parties to the Good Friday agreement were committed to three principles, including agreement that there should be de-commissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000. They added: "This is welcome progress. It means that discussion on how exactly these three principles can be translated into action can resume here on Monday."

Tony Blair's official spokesman said the prime ministerwants to face David Trimble and Gerry Adams so he can "look into the whites of their eyes" to see if they are committed to the fundamental principles of the peace process.

While there is no sign of any sudden movement on the part of either Sinn Fein or the Ulster Unionists, the statement may help to lift the political atmosphere, which for some time has been gloomy and pessimistic. A hardline note was however struck by Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP who has been recalled to the Unionist negotiating team after a year in which he criticised its leadership for being too soft on the de-commissioning issue.

Insisting that the IRA must hand over weapons, he said: "Tony Blair is asking us to share power with terrorists. As far as I am concerned there is no question of that." An ominous note was struck when reports emerged that the Real IRA, the renegade grouping responsible for last year's Omagh bombing, was calling off its ceasefire. A bomb intercepted by gardai in Donegal on Thursday may have been the work of the organisation.

David McKittrick,

Review, page 3