The British and Irish Prime Ministers put intense pressure on Sinn Fein yesterday to agree a timetable for arms decommissioning, which could lead to the formation of a new cross-community government.
A series of meetings involving Mr Blair, Mr Ahern, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists were said to have made progress during the day. But under the deadline set by the Prime Minister the progress must become a firm deal by midnight tonight.
Significantly a number of senior republicans considered to have a clear insight into the thinking of the IRA leadership joined Sinn Fein at the talks.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said the deadline could still be met: "I think we can get there. It's a matter of bringing the right political will. People out there don't want excuses as to why this cannot work. They want it to work. We cannot contemplate failure."
The scene is therefore set for Mr Blair and Mr Ahern to reconcile the Unionist and republican positions. The two men yesterday asked the international body on decommissioning, headed by the Canadian General John de Chastelain, to postpone delivery of what could be a key report on the attitude of the parties. It had been due last night.
Mr Blair declared: "People will neither understand nor forgive if we don't make this thing work. It is a moment of truth for Northern Ireland and let us hope that we choose the future, not the past. I don't think anyone can underestimate the formidable difficulties that we face. But we have been here before. We have done it before and we can do it again."
Seamus Mallon, Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said he was hopeful of agreement between the parties. "I believe it is moving in that direction. I am reasonably hopeful that we will be able to make this work, that we will get there."
Unionists continued to raise the question of the explosive material, apparently under the control of the IRA, seized last week by police in Co Donegal. Two men charged with possession have been accepted into the IRA wing of Portlaoise prison in the Republic. Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, said too much was being read into the Donegal events, saying the IRA's ceasefire was "rock solid".
The Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, warned, however, that loyalists would reject any "shady deal" accepted by the Ulster Unionist Party that would put Sinn Fein into government. Later Mr Paisley claimed he had had a very positive response from Mr Blair to his plea that the controversial banned Drumcree parade be allowed to go ahead.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said that after the "responsible and mature response" of Orangemen in Portadown to the ban decision, lines of communication would remain open. He did not rule out the possibility that a parade through the nationalist Garvaghy Road could take place later this year if agreed by all sides.
Last night more than 2,000 people thronged the streets of Antrim for the arrival of a march of Protestants opposed to the release of IRA prisoners, which is due in Drumcree on Sunday.
Meanwhile police in the Irish Republic searching for the graves of people murdered and secretly buried by the IRA a generation ago found two sets of human remains.
The site, in Colagh, Co Monaghan, is said to contain the bodies of John McClory, 17, and Brian McKinney 23.Reuse content