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Loyalists welcome Blair assurances

Loyalists last night gave a "positive response" to Tony Blair at a meeting in Downing Street after he urged them to use their influence with Loyalist paramilitaries not to break their ceasefire in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister assured the leaders of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), including Gary McMichael and David Ervine, that the Government would move ahead with the cross- party talks on Ulster without Sinn Fein if the IRA did not restore its ceasefire.

He defended the contacts between Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, with Sinn Fein, in spite of protests by Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party that it had amounted to a deceit.

Mr Blair told the Loyalists that Sinn Fein could not claim the Government had not tried to get them into the talks. "He met with a positive response," said a Downing Street spokesman. Outside Number Ten, the Loyalists said it was "make your mind up time" for the IRA.

Defending the renewal of contacts, cut off after the killing of two police officers by the IRA, the spokesman said: "If the phone rings, people pick it up. All [Northern Ireland Secretary] Mo [Mowlam] was doing was - and to her credit - being honest."

"If there are genuine points of clarification, then there is no reason why they should be answered. What we have made clear is the Prime Minister is not going to be strung along on this.

"But he is pretty determined nobody is going to be able to say the British Government is not trying on this front," the Downing Street spokesman said.

Ulster Unionist leaders yesterday met the Northern Ireland Secretary in Belfast to press for tougher conditions on the IRA ceasefire before Sinn Fein could be admitted to the talks. The Ulster Unionist Party, led by David Trimble, objected to the promise by Mr Blair that Sinn Fein could be admitted within six weeks of an IRA ceasefire.