From here to maternity: Blair faces a double booking

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's reluctance to commit himself to taking paternity leave when his wife gives birth next month could have something to do with a clash of dates. He could be more occupied trying to deliver peace in Northern Ireland rather than a fourth child.

The Prime Minister has found that his busy schedule for the end of May is likely to include both the birth of the latest of the "Blair Babes" and the crucial last-ditch talks to save the Ulster peace process.

The Blair calendar has 24 May pencilled in for the birth of their fourth child - just two days after the 22 May deadline for completion of the peace process under the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Blair has made it clear he wants to set an example to the British male by taking time off from work to be with his wife after the birth, but he has so far refused to set a date for his paternity leave.

Although Cherie Blair has made it clear she wants him to spend more time with her after the birth, Downing Street confirmed yesterday that he would be fully occupied around that time with the Ulster peace talks.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, is flying to London this morning for more talks with Mr Blair following his one-day visit to Belfast on Tuesday, in the hope of kick-starting the peace process.

No 10 made it clear that the next stage is likely to involve intensive round-table talks with the main political parties in Ulster, and Mr Blair will be in charge of brokering a deal.

"The talks in Belfast were useful. Both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach felt there was a reason for them to stay pretty fully engaged," said a No 10 spokesman.

There could be one answer to the dilemma, however. Mr Blair's close friend Lord Falconer, who doubles as Cabinet Office minister and minister for the Dome, was given a third "hat" yesterday as spokesman in the Lords on Northern Ireland. Some friends said he could be left holding the baby while dad is away.