Ulster marathon ends in standstill

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THE SEARCH for a breakthrough to rescue the Northern Ireland peace process appeared to have reached a standstill last night after a meeting between the different parties ended without any firm agreement.

Tony Blair and the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, had kept the different parties talking in a lengthy session hoping to "sweat out" some sort of agreement. At the conclusion of the meeting both men said "significant progress" had been made and that there would be further contact over the weekend. However it was clear that the sides had had real difficulties in finding the breakthrough they had been hoping for.

Mr Ahern said that there had been a "serious and intensive dialogue" but declined to give further details. "I think we have made a lot of progress today. We are going to get in touch tomorrow," he said.

But the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, was much more downbeat. "It has been a long day. It has been a very difficult day. There are still lots of difficulties still to be sorted out," he said.

"We really need to make progress around establishing all aspects of the agreement. The problem is that if we perpetuate the vacuum, the rejectionists will seek to fill it in order to wreck the agreement."

None of the parties emerging from the talks at Downing Street was prepared to give details of the discussions.