Ulster talks stuck on sanctions question

Tony Blair and the Irish government insisted yesterday that this week's talks aimed at revising the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly had laid the groundwork for significant progress next month.

But although much headway has been made on thorny issues such as policing, it is clear that the issue of applying sanctions to parties violating a new agreement remains unresolved. Talks at Hillsborough Castle involving the Irish government and local parties broke up just before midnight on Tuesday after 30 hours of negotiations.

Mr Blair later announced that the two governments will publish a key document dealing with policing, justice and other issues in a month's time. He also set a new date for Assembly elections – 31 May.

Differences between Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists on the sanctions question remained unresolved, with republicans disappointed that Dublin supports punishing parties held to be in default. The punishment system involves an international monitoring body with nominees from the British, Irish and American governments, and input from Assembly members.

Ulster Unionists insist this is essential, while republicans oppose anything that might result in Sinn Fein's expulsion from government as punishment for any IRA activities. Sinn Fein's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, was discussing the issue with Unionists yesterday.

The talks were criticised by the Rev Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, who said:"The entire Unionist community are raging mad about what is happening, and they'll show it in the election."

In the Commons yesterday, Mr Blair said: "It is possible that we have reached the basis for the final breakthrough in this, so we can resolve all the outstanding issues."

In Belfast, Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, said there was not enough on the table to secure a deal. Referring to the early departure from the talks of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mr Adams said: "The question of going to the IRA doesn't even arise at this moment if we can't get David Trimble to stay in one place long enough to find out exactly where he is on all of these issues."

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