Ireland: Bloody Sunday apology unlikely

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Downing Street last night damped down hopes by the Irish government and Sinn Fein leaders, who met Tony Blair yesterday, of an early apology over Bloody Sunday and a fresh public inquiry.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman made it clear the expected announcement by Mr Blair would not be coming tomorrow and cast doubt on whether it could be made in time for the anniversary of the killings on 30 January.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, told Mr Blair of the need for an independent inquiry when they spoke by telephone on Friday. The delay will disappoint Dublin, but a source said: "It is better to get it right than get it done quickly."

Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein chief negotiator, said last night that the demand for an apology and an inquiry into the shootings in 1972 had been put to the Prime Minister in hour-long talks at Downing Street.

Mr McGuinness said the threat to the peace process was "grave" but both sides sought to avoid the tit-for-tat killings in Belfast derailing the peace process. The Sinn Fein delegation also made it clear they were staying in the peace talks in spite of registering their objections to the "heads of agreement" document published by Dublin and London last week.

That was enough to give hope to Downing Street that the talks process would go on, in spite of the deepening threat of a slide back into violence caused by the two sectarian killings in Belfast. Mr Blair told Mr Adams before their meeting that people were committing the murders "in the hope they would derail the peace process and none of us are going to let them be successful".

The Prime Minister's office said Mr Adams had expressed an almost identical view and Number Ten insisted that the peace process was "in good shape" in spite of Sinn Fein's objections to the latest document.

Mr Adams underlined the Sinn Fein concerns about the proposed assembly in the Ulster. Their main concern is to ensure proposed cross-border bodies have executive powers.