The May deadline for agreement on the Northern Ireland peace process remains "realistic", and the Government was continuing to work towards it, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said yesterday.
One the eve of his visit to Washington, Mr Blair told American correspondents in London that President Clinton had been "as solid as a rock" in his support for the peace process, and relations with the Republic of Ireland had never been better.
The Prime Minister told the Washington Post that he was more optimistic than he had been a week ago, though he was careful not to bank on a breakthrough.
"It would be an immense historical achievement if we were to lay to rest hundreds of years of bloodshed and division," he said, "but I remain stubbornly optimistic [that] it is possible to do so, but that may just be my nature rather than reality ..."
Mr Blair gave a remarkably frank rundown on the process in his briefing with the American correspondents. "I think the two big things really are, first, to get an outline agreement of a lasting settlement and that is a matter of detailed negotiation that is now under way. That is the next big juncture for people making their choices. And the second thing is clearly that you then put that in a referendum to the people of Northern Ireland. There will be a referendum in the Republic of Ireland, too.
" It is not a statement of the obvious that if you get both those things done, you are through and home and dry. But I think that if those two things are done, it becomes virtually impossible for anyone to argue that the will of the people has not been clear."
However, the Prime Minister then added: "If you manage to do that, it doesn't avoid the situation that a few extremists get back on to killing people, you can never tell; the history of Northern Ireland is that people are prepared to do that irrespective of whether there is any popular support for what they are doing at all.
"But I think it makes it very difficult for anyone who is engaged in violence to achieve any form of respectability once these two things have happened.
"It is important to realise that that is a very clear strategic objective; that you have got to get to the stage where you have built such a strong set of democratic ramparts, if you like, around the situation there, that they cannot be stormed any longer by fanatics who want to wage war on the democratic process."
As for the recent spate of killings, Mr Blair said: "It is very difficult to have any policy of law enforcement that can deal with a situation where somebody just walks up to a taxi cab rank and shoots dead the first taxi driver they see.What do you do with people like that? We have just got to keep on working at the process ..."