Setback for Ulster talks

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TALKS between Tony Blair and the Irish prime minister failed to make a breakthrough yesterday, amid mounting concern that a looming deadline in the peace process will be missed.

After a 25-minute meeting, Mr Blair's spokesman admitted that "nobody is disguising the difficulties" of meeting the 31 October target date for setting up north-south bodies.

Mr Blair, who met his Irish counterpart at a summit of European leaders, said: "We have always thought it is important to have the whole of the agreement implemented. There is a deadline for the implementation bodies and we want to make sure there is as much progress as possible."

In Londonderry yesterday, the Ulster Unionist Party maintained a tough line on decommissioning at its annual conference, insisting that Sinn Fein could not be given a place in the new executive for the province without a handover of weapons.

In his leader's address, Mr Trimble said of Sinn Fein: "If they want to be included they must show they mean to use only peaceful methods. That is easy. They need only begin to fulfil their obligations and decommission weapons in a verifiable and credible manner."

A major point of controversy at the conference was the surprise statement in a radio interview by party chief whip, Jim Wilson, that perhaps too much emphasis had been placed on decommissioning.

This sentiment was roundly condemned by several speakers, dismayed by its appearance of being a lessening of the party's resolve on the issue.

One senior member said: "There will be no backsliding, there will be no fudge on this."