Parliament: Blair up against Ireland deadline

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR will travel to Northern Ireland on Monday to give the party leaders in the Ulster peace process a last chance to reach a breakthrough before the Good Friday deadline.

The Prime Minister's visit was announced yesterday as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, gave Northern Ireland's politicians a deadline of the middle of next week to resolve the weapons dispute that is holding up devolution. She said that she would call a meeting of the Assembly for next Wednesday or Thursday to trigger the procedure under which devolution should be achieved. At that stage the parties will have to take the make-or-break decision of whether to go ahead and form an executive and appoint ministers.

Ms Mowlam, speaking yesterday at Stormont after another round of talks with the political parties, said: "None of the party leaders, I believe, want to see all that we have achieved in the past year collapse. Quite the reverse.

"But no one should underestimate just how difficult and deeply worrying the present situation is."

She added: "All parties have to take responsibility to resolve the present impasse. Everyone has to take another step to find an accommodation.

"I think it would be criminal to let the process towards a non-violent, peaceful future be lost now - no one would forgive us."

The Prime Minister will travel to the province on Monday. He will undertake an intensive round of talks with Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and other key players. Mr Blair and Irish ministers will be hoping to exert the same sort of pressure that enabled them to reach the Good Friday deal at the 11th hour a year ago.

Mr Blair is due to host the weekly cabinet meeting and answer Commons questions, but Downing Street hinted yesterday that, in spite of the war in Yugoslavia, the Prime Minister is prepared to focus on reaching a breakthrough in the impasse on decommissioning of IRA weapons to set up a power-sharing executive for Ulster.

As Mr Blair contacted some of the party leaders by telephone yesterday, the Prime Minister's spokesman played down a threat by the Ulster Volunteer Force to end its ceasefire if Dublin and London attempted to impose a deal on the Loyalist community. "We are seeking the agreement of all the parties. No one is talking about imposing a deal," said the spokesman. The two governments refused to disclose whether they have a fall-back position if there is no movement by the Unionists over their pre-condition that the IRA should begin decommissioning before Sinn Fein takes its seats in the executive.

t John Hume, the leader of the nationalist SDLP, yesterday announced that he is handing over his pounds 286,000 Nobel Peace Prize money to the victims of poverty and violence in Northern Ireland. Money from a trust will be shared between the Salvation Army and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. The rest is to be divided between a fund set up in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing atrocity last August, and a victims' memorial trust.