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Ulster accord inches forward

THE APPARENTLY stalled Ulster peace process "inched forward" yesterday when the British and Irish Prime Ministers held crisis talks in Downing Street.

As Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern brought the key players to Downing Street, government officials initially played down hopes of a breakthrough on the IRA's refusal to decommission its weapons. But as negotiations developed into a series of talks in separate rooms inside No 10, government spokesmen were cautiously more optimistic. They took it as a positive sign that the talks overran their planned schedule by more than two hours.

The two Prime Ministers had planned a series of separate bilateral meetings with Mr Adams, John Hume, of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, and Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist Party leader. But they used the meeting to press the party leaders to make compromises.

Mr Ahern made it clear in advance of yesterday's talks that he was opposed to a British compromise allowing the executive to be set up for six months without its full powers. Mr Hume and his deputy, Seamus Mallon, also strongly argued against "parking" the talks. Mr Paisley betrayed no hint of compromise by the hardline DUP, and warned he would use his European election campaign as a referendum against the Good Friday Agreement. Mr Trimble, Northern Ireland's First Minister, is also mindful of strong feelings within his party that he must give no ground on decommissioning.

An 11-year-old boy told last night how he pleaded with a masked gunman for his life. Declan Lagan and Gary McWilliams, were outside a Belfast bookmaker's shop when the gunman pulled up in a car and levelled it at them. As Declan asked the man not to shoot the gun jammed and the boys ran into the shop which was fired on.