Blair lets slip frustration over Northern Ireland with a flurry of f-words

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair was letting his frustration show as the talks that could end with the IRA being disbanded and the Good Friday Agreement being rescued dragged on into last night.

Tony Blair was letting his frustration show as the talks that could end with the IRA being disbanded and the Good Friday Agreement being rescued dragged on into last night.

The Prime Minister startled officials and Northern Ireland's politicians by using some of the most colourful language they had ever heard pass his lips as he met the province's leaders in the unlikely setting of Leeds Castle in Kent.

A complex of Tudor buildings, replete with a courtyard, miniature bridge and a moat populated by swans, it is an English castle as envisaged by Hollywood. One Sinn Fein negotiator was even glimpsed studying a souvenir brochure about it during a break in the negotiations.

Mr Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, spent the day in discussions with the main political parties, attempting to find common ground between them. The parties said that progress was being made but that it was slow.

During the day there were glimpses of optimism that a formula could be found for restoring devolution to Belfast, nearly two years after it was suspended, in conjunction with the IRA being dismantled.

Complicating the talks, on the table also were the issues of British troop numbers in Northern Ireland, further reforms to the province's police service and an amnesty for on-the-run IRA prisoners.

The problem for the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach is that Northern Ireland's leaders place hugely varying stresses on the different parts of the jigsaw. In addition, political power has swung towards the hard-line forces of Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) during the political limbo of the past two years. Mr Blair said on Thursday that the province's leaders could prevaricate no longer, and warned them that they had now reached the "moment of decision''. Last night, the British and Irish governments insisted that that remained the case and that another attempt to "park'' the process would be held up to ridicule.

Speculation that the IRA could make significant concessions has intensified over the past 48 hours. Mitchel Mc-Laughlin, the Sinn Fein chairman, hinted that it was still possible. "I agree that the deal could be done. We are engaged in a process of talks that has actively intensified," he said. Although he stressed that he was not aware of any announcement by the IRA, he said the peace process would be "liberated'' if a deal were reached that involved terrorist weapons and troop reductions. Sinn Fein is pressing for a guarantee that the structure of the power-sharing executive at Stormont will not be altered in return for an IRA move.

The DUP however, is demanding proof that the IRA is genuine in its intentions before it goes back into government. Their deputy leader, Peter Robinson, said: "Progress has been made in some areas. There are other areas where there has been no progress whatsoever. I'm not indicating how much progress we are making in any specific areas.'' He added: "To say that we are on the cusp of getting an agreement, that isn't the position.''

Mark Durkan, the leader of the nationalist SDLP, said that resistance towards a settlement had been softening. "I don't think we have the full combination code yet. But I think we are potentially getting to a click on some of the issues that we haven't concluded on before," he said.

The parties were preparing to talk into the night and resume early this morning as the pressure built up for a deal. The participants have to vacate the castle by this afternoon, when it is due to host a wedding.

Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "We wouldn't still be here unless work was being done. And work is being done.''