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Sunday, January 11, 1998 Published at 12:02 GMT

UK: Politics

Blair optimistic of Ulster settlement
image: [ Tony Blair tells Sir David Frost of his hopes for peace in Ulster ]
Tony Blair tells Sir David Frost of his hopes for peace in Ulster

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has told the BBC that he remains cautiously optimistic of achieving a peace settlement in Ulster by May.

Tony Blair explains his hopes for peace (2' 56")
When things seem at their worst in Northern Ireland, they can be about to get better, he told Sir David Frost in an interview.

"The whole situation can get pretty fraught but I want to keep to the May deadline ... the key point is a lasting political settlement," he said.

Support for Maze talks

Mr Blair also defended the talks held at the Maze Prison with loyalist inmates and the visit of the Sinn Fein leadership to Downing Street before Christmas, saying there was no harm in talking to people so long as no concessions of principle were made.

"Even if everything went wrong it would still be right to meet and talk ... the Government will take sensible risks to get a settlement."

[ image: Mo Mowlam - under attack but supported by the Prime Minister]
Mo Mowlam - under attack but supported by the Prime Minister
The Prime Minister rejected criticism of the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, for talking to loyalist prisoners in the Maze.

"She's done a great job keeping all sides talking ... she has my full support."

Mr Blair was reacting to comments from a former Northern Ireland minister, Michael Mates who accused Dr Mowlam of "appeasing terrorists".

"The question has to be asked: why did it come to this? The answer ... lies in one word - appeasement."

[ image: Michael Mates - accuses Dr Mowlam of appeasement]
Michael Mates - accuses Dr Mowlam of appeasement
He urged Dr Mowlam to take a more robust approach in future.

"I believe the only way forward for her is to use an old Ulster adage: 'Not an inch!'"

Dr Mowlam was also backed by Seamus Mallon, the deputy leader of the SDLP, who said he had been impressed by her performance in keeping loyalists in the talks process.

"It was courageous of her to do what she did. Whether it was a wise thing to do at the time and whether there will be a price to pay for it remains to be seen."

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