Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, yesterday set a new deadline for a deal on setting up a new administration in Ulster. She confirmed that tomorrow's target date would not be met, but hoped for a settlement by 2 April, the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
In London, Tony Blair's aides said he hoped that fixing a deadline rather than a target "would focus people's minds". He may travel to Belfast to handle last-minute negotiations, while Bill Clinton will try to broker a deal when Irish politicians gather in Washington next week for St Patrick's Day.
Yesterday Ms Mowlam was still clinging to hopes of progress before Easter, despite growing acrimony between Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionists, who do not want Sinn Fein to join the Stormont executive until the IRA has started to decommission its weapons.
Speaking in Dublin, she said: "In the timescale we have I think everyone is keen to give this process momentum. No one wants to go past Easter and into the marching season."
The Northern Ireland Secretary admitted there was no guarantee that a three-week breathing space would work. She said: "It's not me creating any collapse of the process or a danger period. It's in the parties' hands. After the 29th [of March] I don't like dealing in negatives, but we'll look again.
"I have no Plan B after the 29th but I believe there's a will, not only among the people North and South, but among the party leaders to make progress."
Dr Mowlam was attending the formal signing at Dublin Castle with David Andrews, the Irish Foreign Minister, of four treaties launching the North- South bodies, a North-South ministerial council, a British-Irish council and an inter-governmental conference created under the Good Friday Agreement. The event highlighted how progress was being achieved on all fronts except the arms issue.
Referring to talks today between David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, Dr Mowlam said: "The building blocks are now in place and I believe that gives everyone the chance to walk down that road of peace leading to a non-violent future."
Mr Andrews said "one piece of the jigsaw remains. We are all aware that there remain great difficulties surrounding the formation of the executive. But these difficulties can and must be surmounted."
The effect was to add to the sense, encouraged by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in Dail statements and interviews, that the next gesture must come from the IRA. That sentiment was echoed in weekend remarks by the deputy first minister Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, in which he said Sinn Fein had room to move in reaching a compromise.
The new bodies require the prior creation of the Stormont Executive, which will not emerge until the IRA arms issue is resolved. Failure to have the Executive in place by 2 April would increase the sense of deepening crisis.Reuse content