Desire for peace is strong, says Blair

Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern yesterday spent the day at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast, meeting the major local parties in their search for a peace process breakthrough.

Mr Blair played down rumours that a breakthrough might be imminent, saying there was a genuine desire on all sides to make progress, but it would be wrong to raise expectations. The prime ministers also tried to play down the leaked UK Government document in which a British official described Irish foreign minister Brian Cowen of having "all the subtlety and open-mindedness one would expect from a member of Sinn Fein".

A Northern Ireland Office source said: "Peter Mandelson and Brian Cowen get on well at a personal level. At times there are differences of emphasis and inevitably the Government represents different parties' views at different stages."

The two prime ministers together saw the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, the key elements in efforts to reinstate the Belfast Assembly and other institutions which were suspended in February. There was said to be a serious engagement in the talks, characterised as intense discussions. Mr Blair and Mr Ahern were particularly concerned to look for flexibility from Unionists and Sinn Fein, since their starting positions are reckoned to be far apart.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said: "We are waiting to see and hear whether the republicans are going to do anything. We all know what should be done and the time for doing it is fast running out."

Mr Blair said: "We have been semi-downbeat about expectations for sensible reasons. I do think there is a genuine will to put the institutions back up provided we find the right formula."

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