Progress slows but Ulster agreement may be days away

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The hoped-for breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process may not be possible until early next week.

The hoped-for breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process may not be possible until early next week.

The talks were on a knife edge last night, but the assessment is that Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists continue to inch towards a ground-breaking deal based on IRA disarmament and an agreement to share power.

Yesterday's unofficial deadline came and went without a breakthrough, with Mr Paisley meeting Tony Blair in Downing Street while Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, conferred with Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, in Dublin.

Mr Paisley said outside No 10: "We are moving, I believe, in the right direction but there are some very important matters that still have to be dealt with and the most important matter is decommissioning. Until the people of Northern Ireland see that the arms of the IRA are put away, we can't really look any further." After the meeting with Mr Paisley, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said that the negotiations could slip into next week.

Opposition MPs were on alert for a statement today announcing an agreement, but stood down after the news that Mr Adams would meet Mr Blair again today at No 10 to respond to the DUP demands. Mr Adams wants faster withdrawal of security forces in republican areas in the North, which has the support of the Taoiseach.

The DUP wants photographic evidence of the decommissioning of weapons by the IRA, and a Protestant minister to witness it. It has been persuaded to reduce from six months to three months a "quarantine" period before power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

There has been a dispute over the role of the DUP, as the majority party, in the appointment of the second minister - a Sinn Fein representative, in the devolved assembly. The package also includes an amnesty for terrorists on the run. Few people know exactly what the IRA proposes to do by way of decommissioning its weapons as part of a deal, but the general assumption is that it will go further than before in putting arms beyond use and in doing so verifiably.

Republicans seem ready to make what are in their terms fairly painful concessions to achieve their aim of getting back into government in Belfast. This means the principal focus is on Mr Paisley and how he will react to a significant republican move. His status in his party is such that his call will automatically be accepted in its ranks.

Mr Adams complained yesterday about the negotiating process "being dragged out", adding: "We are concerned that the time frame is stretching. We want to see all this done very, very quickly."

Most others involved in the process seem, however, to take the view that waiting a few extra days will be a small price to pay if it allows the DUP leader to clinch the deal.

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