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Friday, April 2, 1999 Published at 05:03 GMT 06:03 UK

UK Politics

Good Friday again - but progress on hold

Good Friday is the anniversary of the original peace agreement

Northern Ireland has reached the first anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement without the hoped-for breakthrough over paramilitary weapons.

But UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has insisted that Northern Ireland's politicians have reached a "basis for agreement".

The Search for Peace
Mr Blair was speaking at a joint news conference with the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at Hillsborough Castle, after three days of talks were adjourned until 13 April.

His optimism was not shared by everyone, with Sinn Fein in particular expressing disappointment at the failure to completely overcome the outstanding difficulties.

Denis Murray reports: "The Government stands by the declaration"
No deal has been formally reached by the opposing sides, with the issue of decommissioning paramilitary weapons still the main stumbling block.

A marathon session of talks led by the two prime ministers failed to break that deadlock.

But the prime minister said both governments were convinced they would get full agreement from all parties in favour of a "declaration" setting out a timescale for establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly's executive and decommissioning.

[ image:  ]
"There is no turning back on the road to peace," Mr Blair said.

The latest agreement was another "huge and significant milestone", he said.

Mr Blair described the three-day talks as being about dialogue and leaving the past behind.

He went on to thank the politicians involved in the negotiations for their "positive and friendly" manner.

John Thorne reports on "an imaginative approach" to resolving the stalemate
He said: "One year on we can be proud to say it is clear that all of the parties are wedded to the Good Friday Agreement."

The adjournment was now a "short pause for reflection", said the prime minister, who set out the way the declaration could help resolve the row over weapons.

Less than a month after Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam triggers the formation of the ruling executive, there will be a "collective act of reconciliation" when arms will be put beyond use in a mannner verified by the independent commission for decommissioning, Mr Blair said.

Tony Blair: "We now have a basis for an agreement"
He said that the government would publish a declaration which would allow the institutions in the agreement, the ruling executive, the North-South Council, the cross-border bodies and the British-Irish Council to be put in place within the next few weeks.

Mr Ahern also thanked those involved in the negotiations, saying: "We are now satisfied we have overcome the last hurdles."

The pair returned to the discussions on Wednesday night after leaving to attend to parliamentary duties in London and Dublin.

[ image:  ]
The deadlock sprung from the refusal of the Ulster Unionists to allow Sinn Fein to take up its seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly executive without a start to IRA disarmament.

Sinn Fein maintains decommissioning is not a precondition in the Good Friday Agreement.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who is also the assembly's first minister, said the declaration would satisfy current problems.

He said the talks had made more progress than he had expected.

[ image: Gerry Adams: Disappointed deadline was not met]
Gerry Adams: Disappointed deadline was not met
"I do recognise they are difficulties and there are problems but I welcome the progress which has been made", he said.

SDLP leader John Hume welcomed the day of reconciliation as an "outstanding idea".

Tim Franks in Belfast: "Agreement is not assured"
As well as decommissioning, there would also be memorial services for everybody who had lost their lives in the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams expressed disappointment that the deadline had been missed.

The prize of lasting peace demanded that everyone must try, he added.

Dr Mowlam had set up a deadline of Good Friday, 2 April, for setting up the executive.

An earlier target date of 10 March was missed when attempts to break the stalemate failed.

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