Time is running out for Northern Ireland, Blair warns parties at start of crucial talks

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Tony Blair told Northern Ireland's leaders yesterday that they had reached the "moment of decision" for breaking the political deadlock which has lasted for almost two years.

Arriving for the province's most important talks since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, he said time had almost run out for reaching a deal on restoring devolution to Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister and Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, have set a target of midday tomorrow for achieving an agreement on decommissioning, the revival of power- sharing at Stormont and security issues. Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, who arrived at Leeds Castle in Kent yesterday for two-and-a-half days of negotiations with the parties, made clear that their patience with the impasse was fast running out.

Although Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) wield more influence than ever before, there are signs that they are edging towards a compromise.

Devolution was suspended in October 2002 amid accusations of an IRA spy ring operating within the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast. All efforts since then to bring the sides closer together have failed, leaving the province in a state of political limbo.

The DUP, now the largest Unionist party, is pressing for the IRA to be wound up in return for the restoration of devolution, while Sinn Fein is demanding cuts in troop numbers, more police reforms and an amnesty for terrorists on the run.

Mr Blair said: "It will be a test for the political leadership and political will and a test of whether we are prepared to listen in a profound way to the yearning of the people of Northern Ireland for a peace that isn't haphazard and random, that isn't partial and is complete and lasting."

Reiterating that there could be no more delay, he said: "We have therefore to be very sure about an end to paramilitarism of whatever kind and that we are in a position to take this forward on the basis of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland sharing power together in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland."

He added: "Two years ago I made a speech about acts of completion. This is the moment of decision as to whether those acts of completion are going to happen or not. We need sustainable, enduring institutions in Northern Ireland."

Mr Ahern agreed that the talks could not become just another stage in an open-ended process. "It is time to come to the end of that sequence. We are clear what we have to do, the issues could not be clearer. It is an issue of leadership," he said.

The Taoiseach said that only a handful of obstacles remained to be overcome. He said: "It's an issue of whether people actually have the will to conclude the Agreement. The people are frustrated with all of us and I accept my responsibility for that. They want to see us bring this thing to an end and four or five issues separate that."

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, struck an upbeat note, insisting that a deal that included the disbandment of the IRA could be achieved as long as the DUP agreed first to the principle of power- sharing. Mr Adams said: "We want to do business with Ian Paisley. We would be quite pleased to vote for Ian Paisley as First Minister, but in the context of the Good Friday Agreement."

Carrying a 5ft bugging device uncovered at Sinn Fein's headquarters in Belfast, Mr Adams said: "This is an offering to the mighty god of British intelligence. We brought it here to return to Mr Blair."

The DUP is demanding changes to the Good Friday Agreement and a cast-iron IRA commitment to disband before it will return to power-sharing.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists and former First Minister, said that the issue of IRA arms needed to be top of the agenda.

Mark Durka, leader of the nationalist SDLP, called for the revival of devolution, as well as a guarantee that "people won't have anything more to hear about the IRA or fear from the IRA".