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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 15:26 GMT
Parties have 'weeks to find deal'
Stormont
The British and Irish governments are hosting talks at Stormont
Northern Ireland's political parties have less than a month to agree changes to new legislation on the assembly and other matters.

NI Secretary Peter Hain said he was aiming for progress in the spring to see the assembly reopen.

Mr Hain and Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern are meeting the local parties at Stormont for talks.

"I want to see agreement reached on 8 March," Mr Hain said, adding that some issues needed "boxing off" immediately.

Mr Hain rejected "the notion that the real business was being done in Downing Street" and that the Stormont talks were "just for the optics".

He said he hoped to chair a round-table session with some of the parties on Monday afternoon.

Pressure

The British and Irish governments are stepping up pressure on the parties to compromise and restore the assembly, which was suspended in October 2003 following allegations of a republican spy ring at the Northern Ireland Office.

Speaking after his party's meeting, DUP leader Ian Paisley said they had raised a number of issues with Mr Hain, primarily compensation for Royal Irish Regiment members facing disbandment.

Peter Hain (l) and Dermot Ahern (r)
Peter Hain and Dermot Ahern are chairing the talks

He said that if there was going to be devolution, IRA criminality had to end, irrespective of any time limit the government set.

"The time has come for the IRA to be told in no uncertain manner that if they don't fulfil the conditions, they have nothing to do with the project," Mr Paisley said.

The DUP chose not to meet the Irish foreign minister. Mr Ahern said the decision was disappointing, but ministers would persevere.

Transfer

As he arrived for talks, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said the only baseline for progress was the Good Friday Agreement.

He accused Sinn Fein of agreeing to a shadow assembly in the comprehensive agreement which it almost struck with the DUP in December 2004.

"Contrary to Sinn Fein's pretence at the weekend that they have never departed from the Good Friday Agreement and that they have never agreed to a two step form of returning to devolution, the fact is Sinn Fein did agree to a two-step return to devolution with the DUP," Mr Durkan said.

It is the second time this month that the two ministers have brought the parties together.

North-south relations form part of the discussions.

Last week, the government unveiled legislation aimed at lending momentum to the political process.

A bill introduced by Mr Hain would enable him to transfer policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland politicians.

He would also be given the power to call a snap assembly election.

At present, this is fixed for the spring of 2007, but an early poll could be used to endorse a new deal.




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