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."

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