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Historic union for peace brokers of Ulster

TONY BLAIR, who drove through the Northern Ireland peace agreement, and John Major, who can claim to have started the process, met in Belfast yesterday in an unprecedented show of cross party unity behind a "yes" vote in the coming referendum.

The meeting of the current and former prime ministers came in a momentous day for the Good Friday accord. Sinn Fein sources revealed that the party's National Executive was to propose its acceptance at the Ard Fheis at the weekend. And news also came overnight that councils across Northern Ireland, including Ballymena, seen as being in the Paisleyite heartland, had voted to accept the deal.

The Prime Minister arrived in Belfast in driving rain for a brief but significant series of meetings. He and Mr Major took part in a question and answer session at Belfast's Waterford Hall during which they repeatedly stressed that the pupils, from 11 schools across the province, were the future, and they also stressed the need to break away from the divisions and sectarianism of the past.

Mr Blair's next two meetings involved two of the thorniest problems facing the peace agreement: the coming Protestant marching season and the fears about the proposed reform of the RUC and the early release of convicted terrorists. Mr Blair met members of the recently constituted Parades Commission and then went on to meet police officers at a training college. He stressed that prisoners would only be freed if the organisations they belong to permanently disown violence. The RUC, he said, would be reformed but with full consent to enable to adjust them to "policing in more normal times".

Earlier, Mr Major had delivered a ringing endorsement of the agreement in a speech to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce: "I do not wish to see this generation and the next relive the miseries of the past ... A `yes' vote would be a huge advance. It is the right vote for the future, bringing with it the chance of a settlement which had eluded the people of the British Isles for 400 years."

Mr Major declared that "a `no' vote will be a `no' to hope". It is the desire of "those who cling rigidly to past certainties and cast casually aside the opportunities ahead".

He continued: "If the people of Ulster now say no to what has been agreed by David Trimble, John Hume and John Alderdice, let alone the political representatives of the main paramilitary organisations, to whom will the Province say yes? ... who believes that Ian Paisley and Robert McCartney can achieve terms more likely to gain widespread community support?"

But Mr Major sounded a warning note over a decommissioning of weapons: "Now the IRA have cast doubt on that and insist they will not decommission their weapons. No one can be certain if their statement is aimed at their own internal divisions, whether it's bluff or whether they mean it. But they must know they cannot cherry pick from the agreement that was reached."