Blair may step in to save Ulster peace process

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Tony Blair is ready to intervene in the stalled Northern Ireland peace talks to seek a breakthrough before the 22 May deadline.

Downing Street yesterday said the Prime Minister was becoming "heavily involved" in the peace process and did not rule out the possibility of a fresh effort by Mr Blair to call the parties together, probably in Belfast, for round-table talks.

Ministers are becoming increasingly anxious at the threat of a breakaway group returning to violence in the vacuum caused by the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

There are fears that republican hardliners will return to attacks on the security services. "They have come close. They are probing us," said a ministerial source.

There is a growing conviction in Ulster that the 22 May deadline for arms decommissioning under the Good Friday Agreement will not be met, but Mr Blair's spokesman yesterday insisted the Government had not abandoned it.

Mr Blair's advisers believe it may be possible to repeat the success he had with the Good Friday Agreement when the process was saved from collapse. But it would be a high-risk strategy, associating Mr Blair with failure if it did not produce a breakthrough. Ministers have reported to No 10 that republican supporters are also growing wary of new initiatives, which could make splits in their ranks more likely.

"There is a lot of work going on. You have to make a judgement the whole time on the best way to try and move it forward, there are very great difficulties," said the Prime Minister's spokesman.

Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, remained optimistic this week when he marked the second anniversary of the peace process. "I hope in the next two weeks we will see two things - agreement on how we can get the institutions back up and running, and agreement on how decommissioning is to be achieved," he said.

The main players in the Northern Ireland talks will be in London today for Question Time in the Commons. Mr Mandelson will be in Belfast for the Queen's presentation of the George Cross to the RUC.

Mr Mandelson has offered a concession to the Ulster Unionists by hinting that the RUC symbols and cap badge could be saved when the force is reformed. He will try to persuade the Unionists that it may be better to have a long-term pledge to disarm from the IRA before 22 May rather than a token gesture of decommissioning.