Ahern and Blair may talk peace in Belfast

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Hopes of a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process rose slightly last night after Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, held seven hours of talks with leaders of Ulster's political parties.

The two prime ministers offered to travel to Belfast tomorrow for another round of discussions but doubts arose later on whether enough progress had been made for the proposed session to go ahead.

In yesterday's meetings at Downing Street, Mr Blair and Mr Ahern held separate talks with leaders of Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionists. Mr Blair's official spokesman said the meetings had gone "perfectly well" and had given the two leaders good cause to hold further discussions. "Experience tells them that, when possibilities emerge, it is best done by real intensive engagement based on clear objectives," he said. "They go [to Belfast] in the hope of making progress."

The two leaders hope to secure a new declaration of intent by the IRA to give up its weapons over a longer time-scale than the 22 May deadline set out in the Good Friday Agreement. In return, the British Government would restore the Northern Ireland executive and Assembly, which was suspended in February.

Although David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, might be prepared to accept such a trade-off, the stumbling block may be his difficulty in persuading his party to re-enter the institutions before the IRA starts decommissioning. "The gap [on weapons] is still there but we are working to close it," said a British source. "Progress is being made but we don't know whether we will succeed."

An indication of size of the hurdles that remain came when it emerged that no round-table talks involving all the parties are scheduled for tomorrow. The two leaders will hold another round of meetings with each party before full-scale negotiations are contemplated.

The cautious optimism of the two Prime Ministers did not appear to be shared by the party leaders after the talks ended. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, said:"We got some answers to some issues. We have a lot more to do and we will continue and our hope is we will come to a conclusion."

Mr Trimble said the Unionists still had not had any clarification over whether the IRA was prepared to disarm. "I can't say we have had answers to the questions that we were posing on the way in," he said. "It really boils down to the question of whether they [the republicans] are prepared to do anything. I haven't seen very much ... to give one a sense of optimism."

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern will speak on the telephone today before deciding whether to travel to Belfast. But Mr Ahern cast doubt on whether the visit would go ahead. He said: "We have kept Thursday free for discussions. If we have reached the point where we can hold those discussions we can meet on Thursday. I'm not too sure if we have."

Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said: "We have made progress. We have been able to narrow the differences between the parties and it's that that has justified the involvement of the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister today."

He said Mr Blair would remain involved in the talks "for however long it takes".