Hopes rise for Ulster peace deal

Poll for new assembly could take place 'as early as June'
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ELECTIONS to a new Northern Ireland assembly as early as June became a real possibility yesterday, as British and Irish prime ministers made a telling show of public unity.

Despite last week's diplomatic turbulence and delays to talks chairman George Mitchell's detailed discussion document, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern both insisted Thursday's deadline for an historic agreement can be met as a new mood of optimism swept through the peace process.

Speaking in London, Mr Blair said the province had a "one-off chance" to bring the troubles to an end. Mr Ahern, standing next to him, said he was optimistic they could agree a position on the crucial issue of cross-border arrangements today. The British Prime Minister added that there was "every possibility" of hitting the deadline.

The new tide of optimism coincided with signs that the unionists will shift their position on the proposed elected assembly for Northern Ireland, moving closer to accepting a Cabinet system favoured by most other talks participants. Though a controversial move for unionists, it would present its leader, likely to be the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, with unprecedented influence in the assembly.

Senior sources also looked ahead to early elections, providing a settlement is reached this week and then accepted by separate referendums, probably in May, in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

"Assuming that it is carried, as we are sure it will be if it is acceptable to the Unionist Party, then there is no reason why we could not have elections for the Assembly in the last week of June," said the source close to David Trimble.

Quick elections would keep up the momentum of the peace process, focusing unionist and nationalist minds alike on democratic politics at the height of the Protestant marching season.

The unionists believe that Sinn Fein will participate in the elections, even if republican opinion is hostile to the outcome of the talks. But it is not yet clear whether the political wing of the IRA would take up seats it won. Sinn Fein has lifted its boycott of the Irish parliament, the Dail, but not of Westminster.

Some new political and security worries also surfaced yesterday. As sensitive negotiations continued, security for British government ministers was stepped up amid fears that extremist elements will seek to derail any agreement.

Unionist politicians also raised concerns that the Irish government has failed to spell out its plans to repeal articles two and three of its constitution, which lay claim to the North, as part of an overall settlement.

John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionists, said early drafts of the Irish government's proposals shown to him, "did not satisfactorily accept the reality of the North".

Meanwhile, the fringe Unionist Ulster Democratic Party is seeking a meeting with Mr Ahern in the next 24 hours to discuss what its leader, Gary McMichael, called "the increasing perception within loyalism that the Irish government is becoming an obstacle" in the peace process.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is to meet Mr Ahern this evening. Speaking after a party executive meeting, Mr Adams said Mr Blair needed to understand that progress towards a political settlement could not be held back by rigid unionist demands.

But the prevailing mood among the parties involved and among close observers is that the talks are on course for agreement. This judgement has been advanced with increasing confidence over the past few days as the Stormont negotiations have intensified. It is based not on the British Government's decision to "talk up" the prospects of success, but on the analysis that the various parties have almost certainly become locked into the process.

The overall shape of a settlement is now clear, although crucial deals have yet to be resolved. Most of the parties were yesterday engaged in bilateral meetings at Stormont as George Mitchell continued his efforts to finalise the working paper.

Background, page 3; leading article, Section 2, page 4