Attempts to achieve a breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process moved into a new phase yesterday when the British and Irish governments announced they would put a "final package" to local parties.
Following days of intensive talks at Weston Park in Staffordshire, Tony Blair announced that the time for negotiations was over and that a package would now be assembled. The talks had seemed destined for an inconclusive ending, with most of the participating parties emerging to give negative and pessimistic assessments.
The fact that London and Dublin had insisted yesterday was the last day for negotiations meant that many had assumed that failure to make a breakthrough would force the Belfast assembly to head towards suspension or fresh elections. But this new approach means that political activity looks set to continue in the lead-up to 12 August, which is the legal deadline for the Government to act.
Mr Blair said yesterday: "The time for negotiations is over. We are confident that we can put together a package for the parties to accept or not. We believe that package can cover all the various areas that have been in dispute."
Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern added that the governments believed they could assemble a balanced package aiming for "the full implementation of the agreement". Any new package will centre on an IRA move to deal with the issue of weapons, given that this is the key to persuading David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party to co-operate in keeping the assembly going.
But republicans have made it clear that any move on guns is only to be expected in the context of government moves on policing and demilitarisation. Sinn Fein maintains that Mr Blair must stick to pledges he made on new policing arrangements, which involve pushing through far-reaching changes and, almost certainly, new legislation.
They are also pushing for a significant run-down of the security apparatus, in particular the removal of army hilltop watch-towers in the South Armagh area.
Yesterday both Mr Trimble and SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon said there had been absolutely no movement from Sinn Fein on the guns issue. Mr Mallon added that there had "very robust negotiations" with a commitment to movement on policing and demilitarisation.
Meanwhile, the authorities in Northern Ireland ordered a scaling-down of security force defences at the Drumcree flashpoint near Portadown, Co Armagh. Army engineers dismantled the large metal construction, which each year is winched into place to block the Orangemen's route to the Catholic Garvaghy Road. As this operation was under way troops discovered an unexploded blast bomb which had been thrown at security force lines by loyalist rioters.
Although there was rioting at Drumcree early in the week the fact that the last few nights have been relatively calm led to the security relaxation. Much more serious loyalist disturbances took place in the town of Portadown itself, while in Belfast major rioting was experienced in the republican Ardoyne area in the north of the city. In the past few weeks scores of arrests have been made and well over 100 RUC officers injured.
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