Irish peace deal remains elusive despite optimism

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, remained immersed in attempts to achieve a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process last night, returning to Belfast to try to reconcile Unionist and republican positions.

Although no one close to the process was confidently predicting last night that the necessary breakthrough would take place, some were saying privately that the chances of success are now better than 50-50.

Each prediction of eventual agreement was, however, heavily qualified with observations that the negotiations were difficult, that much remained to be done and that there were no guarantees of success.

By last night it seemed that no document, even in draft form, had yet been placed by the governments before the parties, although the various elements of a possible deal were said to have been rehearsed in some detail. Negotiations on Tuesday night went on until 11pm and, given the absence of a document, the chances are that many more hours of discussion can be expected.

Unionists and loyalists were generally dismissive of the text of the IRA's annual Easter statement, which was issued yesterday. This declared: "IRA guns are silent," but it made no reference to the decommissioning of the republican organisation's weapons.

While some condemned this as unhelpful others pointed out that previous IRA statements had ruled out decommissioning. Some described the statement as being neutral in tone, and it bore the signs of being composed before the present negotiations began.

It declared opaquely: "If the political will exists the peace process contains the potential to resolve the conflict and deliver a durable peace." This non-committal tone may mean that further statements from either the IRA or Sinn Fein could form part of any agreed deal.

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern returned to their respective capitals for parliamentary business yesterday afternoon before heading back to Hillsborough Castle near Belfast for last night's talks. British and Irish officials, with the SDLP and Sinn Fein, remained at Hillsborough for continuing contacts but the Ulster Unionists withdrew to Stormont.

The Rev Ian Paisley meanwhile geared up for a full-scale assault on any agreement, saying that the Unionist leader David Trimble "is going into surrender negotiations with no one in his party having a clue what he will settle for". The DUP leader described this as "a catastrophic situation".

Mr Trimble himself said: "We have had no indication yet from the republican movement that they are prepared to commit themselves to carrying out the agreement. There is optimism of course, but at the moment we have not seen any sign that the republican movement is committing itself in a realistic way to carrying out its share of the agreement.

"That's the problem, and while there may be some encouraging things in terms of atmospherics and matters of that nature we have to be very clear here between form and substance."

Mr Blair said: "We believe there has been good progress made here, but there is still more to do. The people of Northern Ireland will not forgive us if we do not get this sorted out."

In Dublin, Mr Ahern told the Irish parliament that it would be "terrible" if the parties were to witness the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement. He said the dispute came down simply to "one point, and that is about timing and dates". He added: "Surely we should not lose out because two of the parties cannot agree on times and dates."