Deadline in Ulster moved to Easter

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THE DEADLINE for a make-or-break negotiating session on de-commissioning and agreement on a new administration for Northern Ireland has effectively been pushed back until the last week in March, according to a range of sources in Belfast.

Sources across the political spectrum indicated yesterday that they believed the real deadline for agreement is 2 April which, as Good Friday, will carry a powerful symbolic force for getting the Good Friday agreement of last year up and running. The Government meanwhile responded to a recent upsurge in loyalist violence in Northern Ireland by banning two small but dangerous Protestant paramilitary groups, the Red Hand Defenders and the Orange Volunteers.

The groups, which emerged late last year, are said to be made up of dissident loyalists who have left larger organisations which are now observing ceasefires. The Red Hand Defenders have claimed two lives, one a Catholic man shot at random in north Belfast and the other an RUC officer who was struck in the face by a blast bomb during a protest against the banning of a loyalist parade.

The authorities simultaneously recognised the ceasefire declared by a republican organisation, the Irish National Liberation Army, in August of last year. This means that its two dozen prisoners are eligible to apply for early release under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

On the political front the expectation is that an intense last-minute negotiation will go down to the wire of the 2 April deadline. This represents an extension from the date of 10 March, which until recently was regarded as the target for agreement. In the meantime a flurry of meetings has been taking place involving Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and most of the province's parties.

Many of the major players are to travel to Washington for St Patrick's Day celebrations, when President Bill Clinton is expected to make it clear he will continue to take an active interest in Northern Ireland.

There is still no sign of either Sinn Fein or the Ulster Unionist party budging from their positions on de-commissioning. The republicans maintain there is no chance of any de-commissioning before an administration is formed, while the Unionist party insists on "product" in advance.

There is interest in some quarters in the idea, floated by Seamus Mallon of the SDLP,that republicans could join the administration on the condition that de-commissioning will take place over the following year.

With no sign of either republican or loyalist flexibility some variation of this idea, centring on the notion of a timetable, appears in logic to offer a basis for compromise.

At the moment, however, neither side appears to be in the business of seeking such a compromise, which means that a successful outcome depends on the last-minute talks producing mutual movement.