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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK

UK Politics

PM raises hopes of deal

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are still hoping to reach a deal

Prime Minister Tony Blair has met Ulster Unionist assembly members in a last push to reach a resolution in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Negotiations are continuing at the Stormont Castle Buildings in Belfast in an attempt to break the deadlock over the disarming of paramilitary groups.

Mr Blair's spokesman confirmed that the talks will continue on Friday, when a joint statement would conclude the talks.

A document containing the various proposals put by the different sides in the talks has now been distributed to all parties.

The Search for Peace
Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Sir Reg Empey told the BBC the key purpose of the meeting between Mr Blair and the party's assembly members was to allow them to tell the prime minister how important decommissioning was to them.

He said: "The assembly members are the key group here because they have to put the government into office, they have to sustain it in office and it is from that group the relevant ministers will be drawn.

"It is a most important group and they had the opportunity and they expressed it in very clear and unmistakable terms how strongly they felt and how determined they were that decommissioning was actually achieved within the time scale set out in the agreement."

The BBC Denis Murray: "12 hours after the deadline, the real negotiations began"
}Sir Reg said there was an exchange of views although Mr Blair did not offer the unionists any assurances.

US President Bill Clinton has appealed to both sides to resolve their differences, saying it would be "very hard" for the world to understand if the talks broke down without a deal.

Tony Blair: The world will not understand if we cannot make this work
Mr Blair's spokesman has said the prime minister believes there could be a handover of IRA weapons.

But he refused to confirm whether Sinn Fein had produced any concrete proposals.

He said: "The prime minister believes that we will see IRA weapons...on what Sinn Fein has said."

[ image: David Trimble:
David Trimble: "No commitment by republicans"
Earlier, Northern Ireland's First Minister David Trimble insisted that no commitment had been given by Sinn Fein to start decommissioning because he had seen nothing in writing.

Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, immediately dubbed Mr Trimble's comments a "fabrication".

The political leaders were asked to write down their positions on Thursday evening.

The prime minister's spokesman said there were a series of papers on the table covering "what is do-able."

When he returned to the Stormont negotiations on Thursday, after the 30 June deadline had passed, Mr Blair attempted to put a positive spin on events.

"I believe that what we have witnessed over the past few days are literally historic seismic shifts in the political landscape of Northern Ireland," he said.

But Mr Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, immediately hit back, saying no real progress had been made.

"Despite the spin, despite the smoke and mirrors, there has been no commitment by the republican movement to decommission."

Mr Adams, speaking moments later, insisted the unionists had been informed of proposals on decommissioning from his party.

"For them to say they do not know what we have been putting forward is totally and absolutely a fabrication."

[ image: Gerry Adams: Unionists informed of proposals]
Gerry Adams: Unionists informed of proposals
The Ulster Unionists maintain they will not sit with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland's government without a start to arms decommissioning by the IRA.

Sinn Fein continues to insist it cannot guarantee this and points out it was not in the Good Friday Agreement, which demands disarmament by all groups by May 2000.

In the final hours of Wednesday's marathon session, there was the last-minute decision to publish a report by General John de Chastelain on the readiness of paramilitary groups to disarm. It is now in the hands of Mr Blair and Mr Ahern, who may seek to use it as a central plank of any agreement.

It is thought Mr Adams' party suggested a timetable for decommissioning before May 2000 - but conditional on the unionists accepting them into an executive.

Mr Trimble insists weapons must be handed over at the same time legislative powers are transferred from London to Belfast.

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