Ulster talks may be put off until autumn

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THE BRITISH and Irish Governments are considering "parking" the Northern Ireland peace talks until the autumn, unless a breakthrough results from a renewed push, which begins today with party leaders going to Downing Street.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, will hold joint talks at Number 10 with the key players, but they are not optimistic of finding a breakthrough over IRA arms decommissioning.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams warned yesterday that the Good Friday Agreement was finished if demands for decommissioning continued. "If the demands persist then the agreement is dead," he said.

However, David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, who has insisted on decommissioning before allowing Mr Adams to sit on a new assembly executive, opposed delaying the process until the autumn. "I think to mark time for months would be a very bad thing," he said.

With the Northern Ireland marching season approaching, and the European elections in June, the two prime ministers have privately agreed that time is running out, and if no breakthrough has been found by mid-April they may have to postpone the progress.

"Parking the talks is nobody's favourite option but it might prove necessary," said a source in Dublin.

Over the weekend, there was little sign of compromise from either Sinn Fein or the Unionists. Mr Trimble appealed to loyalist paramilitaries to break the log-jam over the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. He said on the BBC's Breakfast With Frost that if they made a gesture it would make the position of the hard-liners in the republican movement "untenable". He said: "It think it is premature, far, far too premature to be talking about the end of the road. This process is a lot more robust than people realise."

He also confirmed he planned to go to Rome for a meeting of lawyers who are also Nobel peace prize winners. While there, he might also meet the Pope. Mr Trimble said: "I would not be the first Orangeman to meet a Pope."

Dublin's authority to change the country's constitutional claim to the North, which was secured in a referendum last year, runs out in May but it could be extended, probably by a vote in the Irish Parliament.

Downing Street said last night that the two prime ministers would be in "listening mode" today, for their meeting with Mr Adams, Mr Trimble and John Hume, the SDLP leader. The crisis meeting was called after Mr Ahern and Mr Blair agreed last week that the draft Hillsborough declaration had failed to win sufficient support from either side.

Sean Neeson, the leader of Ulster's cross-community Alliance Party, addressing his party's annual conference, called on all sides to move away from "their own narrow selfish concerns" for the sake of the peace agreement. "It is up to the UUP and Sinn Fein to remove the vetoes that they are imposing on the process," he said.