Blair may lead Ulster talks

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR may chair the final stages of the Northern Ireland peace talks with his Irish counterpart, in a last-ditch bid to secure an agreement.

Downing Street last night confirmed that the Prime Minister expected to play a more prominent role in the negotiations as they reach a climax before the May deadline.

However, officials were careful not to commit to any specific formulation in the knowledge that the Ulster Unionists have reservations about the negotiations being co-chaired by the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern.

The move came as Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday echoed optimism over the peace process, as she left for St Patrick's Day celebrations in the USA.

Dr Mowlam said Northern Ireland was "on the brink of an historic opportunity," adding: "For the first time in 70 years unionists and nationalists, republicans and loyalists, are gathered around the table to reach a settlement to the benefit of everyone in these islands."

Earlier President Clinton confirmed he would meet key players in the talks during their visits to Washington on Tuesday, and may visit Belfast later this year.

But the professed optimism of President Clinton, Mr Blair and Dr Mowlam is at odds with the private views of perhaps most Stormont participants, many of whom say privately that the parties are as divided as ever.

n Army bomb disposal experts yesterday defused a device at the Lurgan, Co Armagh home of Martin McAuley, who was once involved in a shoot-to- kill inquiry. In 1982 Mr McAuley was wounded and a friend, Michael Tighe, 17, killed when the RUC fired on a hay shed near Lurgan.