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Thursday, March 26, 1998 Published at 11:00 GMT

UK: Politics

Northern Ireland peace target
image: [ From March 30 parties will be locked in continuous negotiations at the Stormont table ]
From March 30 parties will be locked in continuous negotiations at the Stormont table

An official deadline has been set for agreement in the Northern Ireland multi-party peace talks.

The Chairman, Senator George Mitchell, said a settlement had to be reached by April 9.

George Mitchell explains why he has set down the April 9 deadline (59')
Speaking at Stormont Castle outside Belfast where the peace talks are being held, Senator Mitchell said: "The time for discussion is over. It is now time for decision."

Mr Mitchell said he did not underestimate the complexities and difficulties of the intensive negotiations ahead, but he had decided a target date for the talks to end was needed.

He said that from next Monday, March 30, the Stormont talks would go into continuous session and there would be long and intensive working days.

[ image: Mitchell: Time for decisions reached]
Mitchell: Time for decisions reached
Instead of the three-day a week routine, parties would now spend five days a week around the negotiating table.

"Those who are determined to wreck the process cannot be allowed to prevail. We are going to stay in session until we get this job done," Mr Mitchell said.

The April deadline would allow the British and Irish Governments to hold referenda on both sides of the border in May.

Progress in the talks had been disrupted due initially to the suspension of the Ulster Democratic Party after its paramilitary wing was involved in a series of murders.

Then Sinn Fein was suspended from the talks for two weeks after the IRA was held responsible for two killings.

Progress has reportedly been made on political issues but the two sides are still far apart on the questions of north-south border relations and disarming the paramilitary organisations.

Parties react to ultimatum

The deadline was generally welcomed by politicians involved in the talks.

The BBC's Tom Coulter reports on the ultimatum (2'37')
Ulster Unionist Ken Maginnis said: "We will do anything that is possible and within reason to expedite an agreement. We will do what we can to help."

While optimistic about reaching a settlement, Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party also warned of the possibility of more violence in the lead-up to the deadline.

[ image: Parties involved in the Stormont talks reacted postively]
Parties involved in the Stormont talks reacted postively
"There will be parties who don't accept what comes out of this and the closer we get the more violence there could be," he said.

Sinn Fein negotiator Bairbre de Brun said the party welcomed the April 9 date saying. "We share the assessment that agreement is possible and we will do everything in our power to move that along."

The British Prime Minister's official spokesman said the increased pressure could see Tony Blair play a greater role in the process.

"I have got no doubt he will be intensifying his level of contact with those involved in the talks," the spokesman said. Talks by phone and also in person were possible.

Security operation continues

Meanwhile, the Forkhill security operation continued on Wednesday night.

A number of people from the village in South Armagh were forced to spend a second night away from their homes near the scene of Tuesday night's mortar bomb attack, after a number of unexploded devices were found.

As army bomb experts worked to make the devices safe, the RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan said he believed "other republican groupings" and not the IRA were involved in the attack.

However also said that the IRA was an "intact organisation" which posed a threat.

"That is a threat I must be very much alive to and do my utmost to protect people from," Mr Flanagan said.

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