Crisis talks on Ulster take place next week

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair will host make-or-break talks aimed at preventing the collapse of the Northern Ireland peace process next week in a final attempt to secure progress on IRA decommissioning.

Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, will be locked away with leaders of Northern Ireland's political parties at the secluded Weston Park conference centre in Shropshire, to which the media will be denied access. The aim is to prevent the participants giving a running commentary to journalists and "negotiating in public".

The two prime ministers have cleared their diaries for two days of intense negotiations next Monday and Tuesday. The format is similar to the 1995 talks in Dayton, Ohio, which produced the agreement to end the war in Bosnia.

The talks, which follow the resignation of David Trimble as Northern Ireland's First Minister last weekend, are intended to break the deadlock caused by the IRA's refusal to put its arms beyond use, as required by the Good Friday Agreement. Plans to reform the province's Protestant-dominated police service and to scale down Britain's military presence will also be on the agenda.

Although Mr Blair's spokesman denied that an ultimatum or deadline would be set, he made clear that the aim would be to reach agreement by Tuesday night and dismissed speculation that a further round of talks might be needed. "We hope to make progress on Monday and Tuesday," he added.

"The purpose is quite deliberate – to take people away from the public glare and allow more room for discussion," said the spokesman. "The two Prime Ministers are both of the view that time is not the issue. The question is whether there is a will to move forward."

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who met Brian Cowen, the Irish Foreign Minister, in Dublin yesterday, said: "It was felt that a change of scene might help. I believe that, as well as a redoubling of our commitment, an application of energy and a will to succeed can do it."

Mr Blair and Mr Ahern agreed the plan for Dayton-style talks when they met at Downing Street on Wednesday night. They will meet again at Number 10 on Monday morning before travelling to Shropshire.

A round-table discussion involving the two prime ministers and representatives from Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party will start at lunchtime. Then efforts to remove the stumbling blocks will be made in bilateral negotiations with individual parties.

Yesterday the Northern Ireland Parades Commission upheld its decision to bar the Orange Order's Drumcree parade from a nationalist area of Portadown, despite loyalist efforts to change its mind.

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