Blair upbeat as peace edges closer

After relentless rounds of talks, Unionists on verge of accepting idea of cross-border body for Ireland

TONY BLAIR last night appeared on the brink of pulling off what many had believed was a near-impossibility: the achievement of a deal from the Northern Ireland political talks.

In a relentless round of talks in Stormont the Prime Minister seemed to be succeeding in nudging David Trimble's Ulster Unionists towards acceptance that a north-south body with substantial powers should not be under the thumb of a new Belfast assembly.

In the absence of last-minute hitches the talks seemed set to end in success, possibly even by their deadline of midnight tonight. Mr Blair was joined at Stormont last night by the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern.

The outline of a possible deal took shape yesterday as the eight parties and two governments negotiated on the paper produced on Monday by the talks chairman, George Mitchell. The paper reflects the considered thinking of the two governments.

As well as setting out the structure of the assembly and north-south body, the paper included a new version of articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, supplied by Dublin. The articles are designed to meet Unionist demands that the south's territorial demands over the north should be removed.

The paper proposed a "British-Irish Council" to provide new Anglo-Irish links, further envisaging connections between Belfast and the proposed new devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.

A commission, to operate on a 12-month timetable, is to prepare far-reaching reports on the controversial issues of paramilitary prisoners, the future of policing and the overall criminal justice system. The policing review may have an international dimension. There is also to be a bill of rights especially for Northern Ireland.

The government is also taking steps to ensure that small but important groupings, including those representing loyalist paramilitary organisations, will be represented in the assembly. A number of voting systems have been set out, all of which would have the effect of giving small groupings assembly seats.

There will also be a civic chamber, separate from the assembly, with the intention of drawing activists from Northern Ireland's vibrant community sector into political life.

Mr Blair, who has invested a great deal in the talks, said the substance of an agreement was "just about there". Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, added that the desire of the parties to find an accommodation should not be underestimated.

There were, however, increasingly loud noises from Unionist protesters. The Rev Ian Paisley said: "I'm saying to Mr Trimble - `Do what you like, say what you like, take any bribe they can give you. The people of Northern Ireland at the referendum will totally and absolutely reject you and what you are attempting to do."

Dissent also made itself heard within Mr Trimble's party, with William Ross saying in the Commons that Unionists were facing "blackmail" to accept an agreement.

The round of meetings included a three-way encounter last night involving Mr Trimble, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern. One of those who met Mr Blair yesterday said privately: "He really is driving it on. He has absolutely total grasp of detail."

Splinter group, page 2

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£14616 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading specialist in Electronic Ci...

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003