Adams in historic talks with Northern Ireland police chief

The Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and the chief of Northern Ireland's police will meet today for the first time as talks on a new peace agreement enter a critical phase.

Mr Adams and Chief Constable Hugh Orde will break new ground by holding talks. Mr Adams will also meet Tony Blair at Downing Street.

Direct official contact between the republican movement and the police has been one of the few remaining taboos in Northern Ireland. The encounter will encourage hopes that a political breakthrough is on the horizon.

Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party have for weeks been engaged in intense negotiations conducted via the British and Irish governments.

Mr Blair and the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern hope that a deal can be struck in mid-week. The terms of a new accord will be complex but will centre on DUP agreement to enter government with Sinn Fein following substantial IRA concessions on weaponry.

The timing of the Adams-Orde meeting is particularly significant since an important part of any deal will be the transfer of policing and security powers to a new Belfast administration. A police spokesman said: "The Chief Constable ... has said he will meet anyone who has a positive contribution to make towards policing in Northern Ireland."

The next few days will see a flurry of other activity as London and Dublin try to stitch together a new deal. Mr Paisley is to meet General John De Chastelain, head of the arms decommissioning body, today, and will see Mr Blair tomorrow.

President George Bush has telephoned both Mr Paisley and Mr Adams, urging them to finalise an agreement. President Bush said he had sought to get the two parties to the table "to get a deal done".

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