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N. Ireland Talks End on Note of Optimism

Diplomacy: The British and Irish premiers say the parties to the 1998 peace agreement remain committed to it despite recent street violence.


LONDON -- Despite recent street violence in Northern Ireland, the parties to the 1998 Good Friday peace deal remain totally committed to it, the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland said Thursday after talks in Belfast.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his British counterpart, Tony Blair, met the parties to the 1998 agreement in hopes of breathing life back into the peace process, after Protestant calls for the British leader to take firm action to halt violence in the troubled province.

But if Protestant unionists wanted concrete measures, what they got were reassuring words and a promise to spell out in coming weeks how the British government will make it clear that it will not tolerate violence.

"There is no acceptable or tolerable level of violence," Blair said in a joint news conference with Ahern. "This process is one in which violence has to be shunned completely, not partially."

Blair said he had no doubt that the nationalist party Sinn Fein remains committed to the peace process. But he also said unionists think the British and Irish governments believe that some violence is acceptable, adding that steps must be taken to reassure them this is not so.

He promised to announce steps by the end of this month to restore confidence.

"For all the difficulties and how many times we have been there with these difficulties, this is an agreement that still has delivered a tremendous amount to the people of Northern Ireland," Blair said.

Security was tight for the meeting, held at the request of David Trimble, first minister in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government and the leader of the Ulster Unionists. His Protestant party has warned that the peace agreement faces a crisis after recent outbreaks of sectarian violence.

"They've got to re-create this confidence and do it quick," Trimble said after the talks. If there is no serious progress by Blair's government this month, "there is going to be a very serious problem indeed."

Tensions have risen in recent weeks with Protestant allegations that the Irish Republican Army has tested new weapons in Colombia and is planning new attacks, claims that the IRA denies.

The 1998 peace deal spawned the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, but Trimble has warned the Blair government that it must take tough action to stop violence. Last month he threatened to resign over the issue.

Ahern said there would be difficulties in the peace process from time to time but that these could be overcome. "There was, I think, a huge effort by everybody to walk with each other to try to de-escalate the tensions and the difficulties for the short term and the long term in these communities that are suffering so much, whatever background or whatever tradition people come from," he said.

Thursday's talks came amid Northern Ireland's "Orange marching season," traditionally a time of increased tensions when pro-British Protestants stage marches to mark Protestant victories over Roman Catholics centuries ago.

The most contentious of the marches--in Portadown, southwest of Belfast, the provincial capital--is due Sunday, when members of the Protestant Orange Order say they will defy a ban and parade through a Catholic neighborhood.

The march has been banned over the past five years but held nonetheless. A hefty police and army presence and barbed-wire barricades have prevented violence in recent years.

Violence broke out Saturday in west Belfast when 300 Catholic nationalists rioted after a parade by the Orangemen crossed the edge of a nationalist neighborhood.

Adding to the tensions in Northern Ireland are reports that an IRA splinter group opposed to the peace process, known as the Real IRA, has been plotting to assassinate a top unionist politician or other figure involved in the peace process.

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