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Blair Urges Closer London-Dublin Ties

November 27, 1998| From Reuters

DUBLIN, Ireland — Prime Minister Tony Blair said Thursday that Northern Ireland faced two roadblocks on the route to permanent peace and asked the Irish Republic to put aside past enmities with Britain in a drive to overcome them.

In a speech to the Irish parliament, which was itself symbolic of a vast improvement in ties between London and Dublin, Blair said: "The peace process is at a difficult juncture. Progress is being made, but slowly."

The speech was the first by a British prime minister to the Irish Dail and Senate, the two parliamentary houses, since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 split Ireland in two, with six northern, mainly Protestant, counties staying British.

Blair had spent Wednesday in Belfast, talking to the leaders of the main Northern Ireland parties.

He had little progress to report in resolving a standoff in which unionists insist the Irish Republican Army must start to disarm before they sit in a new governing executive, due to start operating in February, with representatives of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein.

"There is an impasse over the establishment of the executive; there is an impasse over decommissioning," Blair said.

"But I have been optimistic all the way through, and I am optimistic now. Let us not underestimate how far we have come, and let us agree that we have come too far to come back now."

Later, after a working lunch with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, Blair hinted he was hopeful that a further issue, the question of setting up bodies covering the whole of Ireland to discuss issues such as tourism, might see progress soon.

Ahern raised the prospect of rejoining the Commonwealth of former British colonies--a symbolic gesture that would delight Protestant unionists.

Ahern said it was not a concern only among the unionists, adding that two of his own party colleagues had raised the issue.

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