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Saturday, January 3, 1998 Published at 11:22 GMT

Special Report

Hopes for peace in Ulster
image: [ Gerry Adams (centre) and colleagues gather outside Number 10 ]
Gerry Adams (centre) and colleagues gather outside Number 10

The most dramatic sign of change to take place in Northern Ireland during 1997 was the decision of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to meet Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, in October in Ulster. In December the two men met again, this time at 10 Downing Street.

It was a truly historic occasion, though the fragility of the situation was exposed when Mr Blair refused to confirm whether he had actually shaken hands with Mr Adams.

He said simply: "I think what is important about the situation here is that we do treat each other as human beings, and that we have a very simple choice: we can either carry on with the hatred and the despair and the killing, treating people as if they weren't parts of humanity, or we can try to settle our differences by negotiation, by discussion, by debate."

In calling what it described as an 'unequivocal ceasefire' in July, the IRA gave Sinn Fein the chance to sit in on the all-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland. There were warm welcomes for the decision from both Dublin and London, but in Northern Ireland itself, Unionist leaders (who want the province to remain part of the UK) were more sceptical. Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party made his views plain:

"It isn't a ceasefire in any real terms. It is a tactical device to give them entry into a talks process, and they may be able to pull the wool over Tony Blair's eyes, but they will not pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Northern Ireland. We've been through this before, and we're not going to be fooled by it again."

This year there has, once more, been violence in Northern Ireland, much of it during the summer marching season. And during the British general election campaign the IRA brought their fight for a united Ireland to mainland Britain with a series of bomb attacks which paralysed many of the country's road and rail links.

But despite the continuing mistrust that exists between all sides involved peace process, hopes are certainly brighter than they were 12 months ago.

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