Ulster peace deal is so close, says Blair

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AGREEMENT on a peace settlement for Northern Ireland was described by Tony Blair yesterday as "agonisingly close" but the difficulties were underlined last night when the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, said Sinn Fein could continue to be barred from the talks.

Mr Trimble said the RUC believed "IRA elements" were involved in the killing of Kevin Conway, a Catholic man. Security minister Adam Ingram said in a Commons written answer that "it is the RUC's assessment that local IRA elements were involved in the murder although no charges have yet been brought". Mr Conway's killing was not one of the two IRA murders for which Sinn Fein has already been temporarily expelled from the peace process.

The Ulster Unionists also threatened not to sign a peace settlement on Northern Ireland unless the IRA began decommissioning some of its weapons after a day of Downing Street diplomacy by Mr Blair to keep the talks process on track. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, saw Mr Blair at Downing Street yesterday morning, and then flew to the United States with a clear signal that his party will return to the round-table talks around 23 March after "positive and constructive" talks with the Prime Minister. Mr Trimble saw Mr Blair yesterday evening.

Mr Blair said he was "stubbornly optimistic" about reaching a peace settlement by Easter, ready for a referendum on both sides of the border in May. He and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, discussed Ulster at a European Union meeting in London, before Mr Blair met Mr Trimble.

The Ulster Unionist leader reinforced growing Unionist demands for progress on decommissioning before putting a settlement to their supporters. The issue of decommissioning has been dealt with in parallel with the talks, but the Unionist leaders are angry at what they believe are too many concessions to the Republicans. Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told Unionists: "We all want decommissioning ... However, I cannot force people to do it."

Mr Adams emphasised the importance attached by Sinn Fein to the release of IRA prisoners as a result of a peace deal.

Speaking in Downing Street after talks lasting almost an hour, Mr Adams touched on one of the most sensitive issues in the talks for the nationalists by acknowledging that a united Ireland could not be achieved by the referendum in May.

Like Mr Trimble, Mr Adams is playing a balancing act with his own supporters, and the London Government regards his public acceptance that a united Ireland cannot be achieved in the current talks process as a crucial step forward to securing a "yes" vote in May.

Mr Blair and the Sinn Fein team, led by Mr Adams, discussed details of the package being thrashed out in the talks, including a power-sharing assembly in Belfast, cross-border bodies, and joint arrangements between London and Dublin.

Mr Adams said he wanted Sinn Fein to return to the talks "at the earliest possible opportunity", probably in nine days' time after a Sinn Fein executive meeting endorsed the decision.

There was little doubt that after serving a two-week suspension for two killings linked to the IRA, Sinn Fein would return to the talks, and Mr Adams made the most of the face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister before flying to the United States to join his party's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, for the St Patrick's Day celebrations hosted next week by President BillClinton.

He said that Republicans remained committed to securing a lasting settlement for Northern Ireland, but stressed that Sinn Fein viewed any agreement as being part of a "rolling process" and that they remained committed to their long term aim of a united Ireland.