UK, Ireland optimistic of Northern Ireland deal by deadline

ST. ANDREWS - Britain and Ireland held talks with Northern Irish politicians on Wednesday and said the parties could meet a November deadline for restoring self-rule in the province.

But from the outset it looked unlikely Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern would get full agreement between parties either wanting closer ties with Britain or closer ties with Ireland during this week's negotiations.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley saying on arrival his party had "nothing to give".

The talks continued late into Wednesday night and were set to resume on Thursday. Negotiators said no formal announcement of any agreement was expected until Friday.

The governments are optimistic a deal is possible, but stress they will close the Stormont assembly, established to run the province's affairs but mothballed since 2002, if lawmakers do not reach a deal by November 24.

"Now is the time to get the business done and get it completed," Blair said as he arrived for the talks in St. Andrews, Scotland. "I believe the political will is there ...

but the discussions over the coming hours will decide that."

Paisley said he was "not interested in deadlines" and that the onus was on his Irish nationalist opponents, Sinn Fein, to back the province's police.

"My message to Sinn Fein is simply you have to deliver. We have nothing to give," Paisley told reporters.

His tone contrasted starkly with that of Sinn Fein.

"The government's position ... is very clear, that the working institutions should be in place by November 24. That's Sinn Fein's position too," leader Gerry Adams said. "I hope that he (Paisley) is prepared, as we are, to sort the issues out."

Sinn Fein has long been sceptical of the province's Protestant-dominated police force.

Last chance

London and Dublin are billing the talks as a last chance to make progress before the November deadline, and the last time in what could be years for such high-level discussions.

Blair, who has made political settlement in Northern Ireland one of the cornerstones of his time in office, is due to step down next year, while Ahern will be campaigning for a third term in an election due by the middle of next year.

"These circumstances, which we've carefully choreographed for a long period of time, just won't come around again," Ahern told Irish broadcaster RTE.

"This will transform Northern Ireland, that's the prize ... This is a big chance and I just hope we can finish it."

If no deal is reached by November 24, London will shut the assembly and continue running the province from Westminster but with input from Dublin. Assembly members' salaries will stop.

For all the talk of St. Andrews being "make-or-break", participants know many "final" deadlines have passed before. A major push to seal a deal in 2004 stalled at the last moment over demands for photos of IRA guerrillas scrapping arms.

This time around the DUP, which did not sign the 1998 peace deal that helped to end Northern Ireland's 30-year sectarian conflict and which set up the short-lived assembly, wants the commitment from Sinn Fein on the police and changes to the structures of regional government.

- REUTERS

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