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Last Updated: Friday, 10 September, 2004, 19:01 GMT 20:01 UK
Blair questions NI political will
Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern
The PMs met in Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency

The prime minister has questioned the will of the political parties to reach a settlement in Northern Ireland.

Tony Blair said there was no point in continuing to have meetings if that will was not there.

He was speaking after discussions with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern ahead of next week's intensive negotiations on the Northern Ireland political process.

They met in Mr Blair's Sedgefield constituency in the north east of England on Friday.

Mr Blair said: "It's two years now since I made a speech at the Harbour Commission in Belfast about acts of completion, saying in effect that we had to move the whole thing forward and get things done.

"Two years on, the elements are still the same - it's apparent what has to happen: there has to be a complete, unequivocal end to violence, there has to be a willingness on that basis to share power.

"The elements are clear - the question is, is the will clear? Do people really want to do it?

"This is the chance - there's no point in us carrying on, continually having these meetings unless that will exists, and we'll find out next week if it really does."

However, Mr Blair said he believed there was a willingness on the part of people in Northern Ireland to find a way forward and reach final decisions about the political future.

He said next week's talks may be the best possible chance to reach a deal.

'IRA disbandment'

Mr Ahern said the issues were well known to everyone and hoped the political will existed to find a settlement.

"There is a clear understanding between the governments about what we want to do," he said.

We need the institutions up - we need an executive, a working executive, and we need the assembly to be working
Bertie Ahern
Irish prime minister

"Hopefully, with the three days we have allocated next weekend, there will be the desire to go ahead.

"It is frustrating, to say the least, that the institutions are down for two years and it is 10 months since the election.

"It is fairly obvious what we require to do. We want to get back to the normality of politics in the north - where people are dealing with education, health, environment, and all the other issues.

"But to do that we need the institutions up - we need an executive, a working executive, and we need the assembly to be working."

It was the two prime ministers' last chance to decide their strategy ahead of the talks due to take place in Leeds Castle in Kent next week.

They got a read out from their officials of what progress - if any - they believe has been made in the government's talks with the parties during the last fortnight.

Secretary of State Paul Murphy said next week was the most critical week in the political process since 1998 and that failure to get a deal would have serious consequences for everyone.

"Leeds Castle is the moment for all of us, republicans, unionists, nationalists, loyalists and governments to deliver for the sake of the future of this generation and the next," he said.

"We are working on the basis that next week's talks will succeed and we can get a deal to restore devolution in Northern Ireland.

"What has to be done at Leeds Castle is clear with the focus having narrowed to two remaining issues, paramilitary activity and power sharing."

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson wants both prime ministers to back his party on IRA disbandment.

However, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness is warning the DUP if they do not do a deal, the alternative could be worse.

Senior officials from the British and Irish Governments, including Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell, will meet Sinn Fein on Saturday.

In public, neither prime minister will contemplate anything short of a comprehensive deal at Leeds Castle.

However, for all their determined talk, they know that the gaps to be bridged remain wide before there is any chance of the assembly being revived.

'Crucial part'

President Bush's special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, will join the intensive talks aimed at restoring devolved government to the province.

The talks, aimed at resolving issues surrounding the deadlock over the IRA's continued existence and power-sharing at Stormont, will be chaired by the British and Irish prime ministers.

US special envoy Mitchell Reiss
US special envoy Mitchell Reiss will join the talks
Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy said on Wednesday that the talks would be the moment of decision for the peace process.

Mr Murphy told MPs that the government was not contemplating failure at the talks, which were a "crucial part of the process".

The political institutions in Northern Ireland were suspended in October 2002 amid allegations of IRA intelligence gathering at the Northern Ireland Office.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have maintained high-level contacts with both governments over the summer.




WATCH AND LISTEN
BBC NI's Mark Devenport:
"Mr Ahern said the issues were well known to everyone and hoped the political will existed to find a settlement"


BBC NI's Political Editor Mark Devenport reports:
"For all their determined talk, they know the gaps to be bridged remain wide"



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