Northern Ireland: Talks face summer deadline

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EFFORTS continued to try to restore momentum to the flagging Northern Ireland peace process yesterday, with political meetings in Belfast and warnings that the absence of an early breakthrough could spell disaster.

There were stirrings of interest in a compromise plan advanced by the SDLP leader John Hume in an effort to bridge the gap between Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists on arms decommissioning. Both elements have been critical of the idea, which involves Sinn Fein promising to leave a new executive if the IRA returns to violence, but both have stopped short of outright rejection.

On the Unionist side it is clear the preferred option is that of the Hillsborough declaration which Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, produced earlier this month, envisaging republican decommis- sioning in the context of an act of reconciliation.

The declaration has lost ground because of opposition from Sinn Fein and loyalist elements, with reservations expressed by minor political parties. Mr Blair and Mr Ahern appear ready to travel to Belfast if the prospect of a deal should appear.

Parties warn of the dangers of "parking" the peace process for summer, with a potentially divisive European election campaign and possible marching season confrontations likely to add to tensions.

In Ligoniel, north Belfast, a Catholic woman and her 14-year-old son escaped unhurt after a grenade attack on their home.