Blair and Ahern meet amid hope for Leeds Castle talks

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Tony Blair met his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, yesterday to co-ordinate a joint strategy aimed at achieving a breakthrough at next weekend's major Anglo-Irish summit, due to be held in Kent.

Tony Blair met his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, yesterday to co-ordinate a joint strategy aimed at achieving a breakthrough at next weekend's major Anglo-Irish summit, due to be held in Kent.

The meeting, at Leeds Castle, will take the form of intensive negotiations. Ideally, this would produce a new agreement between republicans and Unionists and devolved government being restored in Belfast.

The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met in Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency under tight security. Mr Blair has expressed his own impatience by suggesting that an alternative way forward may have to be found if the negotiations fail, declaring: "We can't have this endless negotiation."

The two governments have a good working relationship, and the Leeds Castle talks are likely to conform to the familiar pattern of the two leaders pushing Sinn Fein to find common ground with Unionists.

The difference this time is that David Trimble's Ulster Unionists have been eclipsed, so that the largest party in Northern Ireland is now the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists. While everyone knows that bringing the polar opposites of Sinn Fein and the DUP together is a tall order, most of the preliminary manoeuvrings before the Leeds Castle talks have, on the whole, been encouraging.

Although the two parties have emitted some hardline signals, most of their public utterances have been - by Belfast standards - remarkably conciliatory. This has created the widespread assumption that they will at some stage hammer out a deal that would put both into power in a new administration. Some feel, however, that this may not happen at Leeds Castle, which will be the DUP's first bout of negotiations involving republicans.

The DUP position is that they will not go into government so long as the IRA remains active and armed. Republicans are unlikely to move towards meeting such a stipulation without firm guarantees that the DUP would respond to movement by forming a government with them.

The DUP position is that it will not talk directly to Sinn Fein, but the DUP's deputy leader, Peter Robinson, continued the public dialogue this week between the two parties.

Responding to remarks by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, he declared during a groundbreaking visit to Dublin: "Call our bluff, Mr Adams. Put us to the test. Destroy the guns. End the terror campaign."

Many other issues will also be on the table, including policing and justice. Sinn Fein is pressing for a speedy devolution of policing, while the DUP is much more cautious.

Because of the sensitivity of many of the issues, and because the DUP has only recently assumed the mantle of Unionist leadership, few participants are publicly or privately predicting a breakthrough at Leeds Castle.

But, at the same time, participants and observers are forecasting that some progress will be made, given that the two main parties know they cannot get back into government again without each other.

One theory is that real agreement will not be reached before next year's Westminster general election. None the less, the two governments and the parties are putting great effort into the encounter, having spent many months exploring the various positions.

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