Blair gives Northern Ireland 14 days to agree deal

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MAKING NO attempt to conceal his exasperation at the recent lack of progress, Tony Blair served notice on Northern Ireland politicians yesterday that they have only two weeks to achieve a breakthrough.

In a speech in Belfast he warned them that he was serious about the 30 June deadline, which he announced some time ago. He declared: "Either on July 1 we will move this process forward or we will have to look for another way forward."

The Prime Minister flew to Belfast after the European election votes were counted to impress on politicians, in particular the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, that he would not allow the arms decommissioning dispute to drag on.

After the Rev Ian Paisley's strong showing in the poll, Mr Blair accused those who were against the Good Friday Agreement of preferring Northern Ireland as it was. "It was simpler. No one had to listen to talk of betrayal from their own supporters. We all just stayed in our little boxes and attacked the others, and Northern Ireland became a symbol for outdated religious conflict," he said.

Although the speech contained many appeals for politicians to find a middle way, it was short on specific threats and sanctions to be wielded in the event of a lack of agreement. While Mr Blair spoke of having to look for another way forward, he extolled the many advances that he said had been delivered by the Good Friday Agreement. He said it had resolved the key constitutional issues and had greatly reduced violence.

The two-week window of opportunity offered by Mr Blair will bring Northern Ireland to the opening of the most intensive part of the Orange marching season. Early July sees the Drumcree march, which shows every sign of again provoking severe problems. Outbreaks of trouble at Drumcree, and in all probability at many other places, would provide an unlikely backdrop to any new agreement, which helps to explain why the end of this month has been chosen as a deadline.

t Mr Blair defended the Government's support for 17 former soldiers in their attempt at the High Court in London to remain anonymous when they appear at an inquiry into the events of "Bloody Sunday". Fourteen people died after troops fired during a demonstration in 1972 in Londonderry. A four-day hearing ended yesterday, and judgment is expected tomorrow.

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