The May deadline for ending the talks on the future of Northern Ireland and holding a referendum could be extended if agreement is within reach, Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said yesterday.
The concession could be a hostage to fortune, if either Sinn Fein or the Unionists seek to turn the negotiations into a talking shop, which has happened in the past.
But Ms Mowlam showed that she was aware of that danger, by making it clear that she would only extend the deadline if agreement was near.
Praising Tony Blair's drive, determination and courage, Ms Mowlam said: "There is a bit of leeway, but I have learnt ... we need momentum in this process ...
"Setting a deadline for the start of the talks and setting a deadline for the end of talks ... is very important. I don't want to move that date. but obviously if we are making progress, I am not going to say 'That's it chaps'."
But Ms Mowlam was also optimistic, saying: "We could do it by Christmas if people really wanted to do it, if there was determination and we could build that trust and confidence quick enough, which is the problem - getting people to trust each other and talk."
This week's talks were made possible by the series of recent developments, with first Sinn Fein and then the Ulster Unionists entering the talks process.
Sinn Fein had been pressing for entry for many months, on several occasions appearing at the gates of Stormont to stage symbolic protests.
Their entry was eventually secured by the 20 July IRA ceasefire, which was followed by a six-week "quarantine" period. The Government then declared that the republicans had stuck to their ceasefire and could thus be allowed in.
The Unionist entry was a much reluctant affair, the Ulster Unionist Party hesitating for many weeks before finally taking the plunge. They walked through the gates of Stormont declaring that they had come to confront Sinn Fein not to negotiate with it.
The party's first action in the talks was to make an attempt to have the republicans expelled from the talks. This failed.
The key breakthrough then came last week when, after many hours of toing and froing, all the parties supported a motion which in effect wrenched the talks from the procedural quagmire and opened the way for substantive negotiations.
Today's low-key start is to take the form of bilateral meetings in readiness for a meeting of the business committee tomorrow.
That meeting will be important both for setting out how an immediate start is to be made and for the fact that both Unionists and Sinn Fein will be represented.
Unionists have spoken of avoiding eye contact and shunning any direct exchanges.Reuse content