Football provides match for talks on Ulster peace

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The Independent Online
It was an unlikely setting for a meeting between two heads of government. But, as David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, records, after watching the football at St James' Park in Newcastle, Tony Blair and the Irish leader, Bertie Ahern, discussed the peace process.

The two men met for about 45 minutes following the Premiership match between Newcastle and Manchester United.

The conversation centred mainly around the issue of the loyalist prisoners, which is threatening the peace process. Mr Ahern urged Mr Blair to consider the early release of both republican and loyalist prisoners, a tactic which he believes will underpin the ceasefires maintained by both the IRA and the Protestant paramilitaries.

Mr Ahern said: "The failure to release them is obviously putting pressure on loyalist politicians." But Mr Blair signalled no intention of a change in the British position.

A Downing Street spokesman said last night: "They briefly discussed loyalist prisoners and the Prime Minister confirmed that the British position had not changed. They both expressed a desire to move the peace process forward in the New Year."

The post-football meeting took place against a background of concern in both governments about the lack of progress in the Stormont multi-party talks, with some signs of disaffection in both the republican and loyalist camps. While few believe that either the talks process or the ceasefires are in danger of breakdown, debate continues on whether Dublin and London have been getting the balance right on the "confidence-building" measures they deploy to reassure opinion in the two communities.

On the one hand, Unionists complain that London is in the business of appeasing republicans with what they describe as a stream of concessions on prisoners and other issues. Republicans, however, protest that the British move too slowly.

The most immediate point of concern centres on threats from the Progressive Unionist Party to withdraw from the talks process. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, is to meet party representatives in Belfast today. The party is small but strategically important in that it speaks for the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, and has been enthusiastic about leaving paramilitarism behind.

Now, the party complains that its concerns, in particular about loyalist prisoners, have been neglected. Its spokesman, Billy Hutchinson, said at the weekend: "The British government have courted the IRA, they have bent over backwards and they have not done anything for us. I don't think there is any point going further in this process because Mo Mowlam will not create a level playing field."

The PUP took particular exception to Friday's releases of nine republican prisoners in the Republic. Dublin's view is that such releases can help stabilise the ceasefires, and that similar moves should be made in Ulster.