Politics: Long-distance deal saves Ulster talks

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair made seven calls from Japan to the Irish Prime Minister to secure a deal over Ulster peace proposals. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the telephone diplomacy has worked for now.

Tony Blair's hands on approach in calling Bertie Ahern repeatedly from Japan underlined the crisis in which the talks were placed early yesterday.

Downing Street refused to elaborate on the nature of their talks. However, the number of calls to Dublin in the early hours yesterday was seen as clear evidence that Mr Blair was engaged in crucial, last minute negotiations to win Irish approval for the blueprint for peace to be put to the parties in the Northern Ireland talks.

The two governments had been divided over the Unionists' demands for a power-sharing assembly in the North, which Sinn Fein feared would lead to an internal settlement. Sinn Fein had objected to the word "assembly" in the document.

Bargaining over the fine print went on until the small hours in Japan, where Mr Blair is on a European Union visit. A group of businessmen said the Prime Minister told them he had been up until 3am making calls.

A joint statement hinted at the ground that had divided the two governments: on the need for clarification over a commitment by Dublin to scrap its constitutional claim to the North; and the operation of the agreement with the existing meetings between Irish and British ministers. These issues were not spelled out in the document.

They said that other matters not directly referred to in the document would be dealt with "where it makes sense - for example, issues where harmonising or cross-border action is appropriate will be dealt with on that basis". Mr Blair also negotiated with David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and had regular talks with Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

There were strong rumours at Westminster that John Hume had disagreed with Seamus Mallon, his colleague in the moderate nationalist SDLP, in the preparation of the draft document. Mr Mallon, it was said, had privately given his assent to an earlier draft, but it had to be renegotiated when Mr Hume objected.

The SDLP leader shared the objections of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams with the early draft.

Mr Blair had to navigate a path through the minefield of anxieties of both Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists in allowing cross-border bodies which will give Dublin a say in services in the North, with the power- sharing assembly in Belfast.

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