Blair paves way for new Ulster peace drive

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Tony Blair made a personal reconnaissance of the stalled Northern Ireland peace process yesterday, meeting crucial players in Belfast and Dublin in advance of an attempt to break the deadlock.

His visit to both parts of Ireland came as the two governments seek to finalise a new joint approach aimed at kick-starting the process by reconciling the Unionist and republican positions on arms decommissioning.

There were no expectations of a breakthrough yesterday, and the Prime Minister went little further than saying there were "possibilities".

The sense is rather that an important new push for agreement will be made after Easter, in the hope that a breakthrough might be possible before 22 May.

The broad outlines of a common approach with Dublinare said to exist, despite the fact that many vital points of detail seem unresolved. And although the two governments have similar aims, there is little sign of close partnership and harmony.

With the IRA apparently dead set against any idea of early decommissioning, an exploration is under way for other moves that might have a similar effect in terms of making clear that the republican war is over.

One key question, however, is whether David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party would ever agree to set aside its demand for the actual decommissioning of IRA weaponry.

Mr Blair said: "The Good Friday Agreement remains the only show in town. There's not going to be another and when people say that the Good Friday Agreement is in tatters, it is nonsense. The basis of the Good Friday Agreement remains.

"There was an issue there revolving around how we make sure that there is proper confidence that violence is a thing of the past. It is an issue that remains and still has to be dealt with. I just want to emphasise to people that I am here to listen and to talk topeople, to learn what the concerns are and to go back over the ground again."

Mr Trimble urged both Mr Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, to maintain pressure on republicans for movement. He said of his meeting with Mr Blair: "While we had a discussion about some ideas with him, he was not in a position to outline to us any specific proposals or to give the details about the matters that have been discussed in the background. Our impression is that it has not yet reached any degree of precision, which is why I hope that republicans will make it clear to the Government what they are going to do and when they are going to do it."

John Hume, leader of the nationalist Social and Democratic Labour Party, said he had urged Mr Blair to set a firm date for the restoration of devolved government, saying the political vacuum was creating dangers and causing uncertainty.