Blair hopes new Ulster talks can break the deadlock

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair announced last night that a fresh round of talks would take place tomorrow to save the Northern Ireland peace process from collapse after a marathon negotiating session failed to break the deadlock.

Hope remains that despite many difficulties real progress can be made when Unionists return to the table after today's annual 12th of July Orange demonstrations.

One source closely involved with the talks said real discussions had been going on, with a number of ideas emerging on how a breakthrough could be reached. The parties are to reflect on these today, with talks resuming for what is described as the final crunch day.

The difficulties led to recriminations between the key negotiators and the atmosphere at Weston Park, the Midlands country house chosen as a neutral venue for the talks, became so bleak at one point that tomorrow's resumption of negotiations looked in doubt.

In Belfast, there was little surprise at the lack of a breakthrough in the Weston Park talks, in the light of the combative rhetoric of many of the participants in the run-up to the negotiations. Hope has not entirely vanished of progress being made when the talks resume, given that previous negotiating sessions have tended to produce breakthroughs only at the 11th hour.

While there is no confirmation that an actual package is on the table, the elements involved in any deal, including decommissioning, policing and demilitarisation, have been discussed in detail.

More than 50 hours after negotiations began, Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the nationalist SDLP, could scarcely disguise his frustration with Sinn Fein's hardline stance on decommissioning. He said: "I'm disappointed the question of illegally held arms has not been resolved."

Mr Mallon indicated that there had been some progress on the contentious areas of policing and Army numbers, but added that on some issues, "I have no greater clarity after two and a half long days than I had when I came in".

Mr Blair, in a joint appearance with his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, said: "Although obviously there are substantial areas of disagreement and difficulty, so far as we are concerned we are going to work with complete determination and some hope that we can find a way through."

He added: "There is a huge responsibility not just on the two governments, but on all the political parties to show the leadership necessary to get the job done. With that political leadership we can get the job done. In that I have no doubt."

But Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, replied to Mr Mallon: "He can't hang the issue of weapons around Sinn Fein. It is his responsibility as well as everyone else's. If there hasn't been any progress, then it's his fault as well as everyone else's." Mr Adams insisted the onus remained on the British Government to implement all elements of the Good Friday Agreement, but said common ground could still be reached tomorrow.

"The big thing is there is hope, even though it may be a little soiled and wounded by what's happening here. Ten years ago there was no hope," Mr Adams said. Time to find an accommodation between the increasingly entrenched negotiating teams is running out, though, because Mr Ahern flies off on Monday for a visit to South America.

As the Weston Park talks dragged on for a third unscheduled day yesterday, Mr Blair had to abandon his weekly appearance at Prime Minister's Question Time. Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, deputised for him.

Negotiations were cut short, however, as the Unionist negotiating team had to return to Northern Ireland for today's 12 July celebrations, the climax of the Protestant marching season. The gravity of the situation was reflected by Mr Blair's decision to scrap a keynote speech planned for tomorrow on government moves to attract more private capital into public services.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, whose resignation as First Minister triggered the current crisis, also accused Sinn Fein over intransigence on weapons decommissioning.

He said: "Reflecting after yesterday, the main feeling today is one of disappointment, disappointment that despite the efforts of so many other parties, there has been such a poor response from the republicans. They haven't lived up to their obligations or fulfilled the promises they have made."

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Orangemen will today parade at venues all over Northern Ireland in the annual 12th of July celebration of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In Belfast, the authorities are thankful for the most trouble-free climax to the Orange marching season for many years, although anxieties remain about today's parade in the city of Londonderry.

The Parades Commission has decided not to change its original determination banning Orangemen from parading in the almost entirely Catholic Cityside district.