Blair offers hand of peace to Sinn Fein

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TONY BLAIR greeted Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun with a handshake yesterday - the first time he has publicly shaken the hand of a member of the political wing of the IRA.

Although the Prime Minister made light of the moment, it underlined the giant strides taken in the Northern Ireland peace process at the inaugural meeting of the British-Irish Council in London.

Mr Blair said: "Part of this whole process is that we start to treat each other like normal human beings in a normal society. I just hope in time, as the memory of all the bitterness and destruction of the past starts to fade, or at least reduce in its intensity, that we can all recognise that we are all people now, struggling to do our best for the future of Northern Ireland.

"And I will always be wanting to greet people who I believe are trying to make democracy and peace work in a way that I would greet anyone. If that's a milestone, well so be it."

Later, Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stood smiling as Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, put the final piece in place for the Good Friday Agreement at the first meeting of the Anglo-Irish Inter-governmental Conference. Seamus Mallon, Deputy First Minister of Ulster, said there could be "no going back" on the peace process.

However, it could unravel if the IRA fails to deliver on decommissioning by next February, and David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists and the First Minister, pointed out that groups calling themselves the Continuity IRA or the Real IRA still posed a real security threat.

Mr Trimble avoided commenting on Mr Mandelson's article in The Independent yesterday revealing he intended to implement the Patten Commission on the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Mr Mandelson said: "The reason we are proceeding is that policing needs to be reformed, needs to change, needs to become more effective and more acceptable."