Clinton pledges to work flat out for Ulster peace

PRESIDENT Clinton yesterday confirmed his personal commitment to peace in Northern Ireland, pledging himself to a "30-hour marathon effort to try to close as many gaps as I can in the Irish peace process". Speaking at the annual St Patrick's Day presentation of the shamrock at the White House, Mr Clinton urged all parties to look beyond short-term calculations and seize a "hopeful and historic opportunity for peace".

With the Irish peace talks at a crucial stage - they reconvene in Belfast on Monday for what the Government hopes will be one last concentrated sprint towards agreement by Easter - all the leading players were in United States for the holiday. As well as Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, and Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, had all travelled to Washington. And while they had separate meetings with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, at the White House and with the press, there was little of the studied avoidance of the past.

They dined together, though on separate tables, at the British embassy St Patrick's Day lunch on Monday, and this was the first time Gerry Adams had been invited to the Washington embassy. It also marked a change of emphasis for the embassy, whose St Patrick's Day lunch was arranged in the past as a counterweight to the overwhelmingly republican tone of festivities in America. They were together again at the White House in the evening for the St Patrick's Day party.

US officials said that they hoped the contacts in Washington would help create more flexibility in advance of the Belfast talks, and there was a general air of optimism among British and Irish officials. Echoing the view of his British counterpart, Tony Blair, that agreement was "agonisingly close", Mr Ahern, told CNN that "what's been negotiated since 24 September and what is now in substantive form in various proposals is very near conclusion".

Emerging from a 45-minute meeting with Mr Clinton on Monday night, Gerry Adams also sounded optimistic, saying: "I think there is the capacity to have an agreement." He added a hope that there would be no new violence: "I think hopefully there will nothing remiss, but if there is we cannot allow that to deflect us or to shoulder us off the path that we're on."

Ms Mowlam told reporters that she knew the Easter deadline set for agreement, to enable a referendum to be held before the end of May, would be "tight and tough". But she said she believed it would be met. In the absence of agreement, however, there would be no referendum: "If all parties campaigned against it, it would be political suicide," she said.

Praising the American contribution in the approach of the next, crucial stage of talks, Ms Mowlam said "the can-do American spirit has a positive effect". Mr Clinton had already had a positive impact by "providing a united front when we face difficulties" and nudging the parties "when progress had to be made". She also held out the possibility that he might make a return visit to Northern Ireland, perhaps before a referendum. "We are not urging him," she said, "but he would be most welcome."