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Protestant Leader: Time Running Out for Northern Ireland Agreement - 2001-07-14

Time is running out to secure an agreement to break the impasse hanging over the Northern Ireland peace process.

For the fifth day in a row, the clock continues to tick as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, attempt to find a compromise solution acceptable to all political parties in Northern Ireland.

The leaders are meeting with representatives of most of the pro-agreement parties at a secluded country house in Weston Park, in England's Midlands.

Throughout the week, there has been very little progress made, but the parties continue to talk.

The current crisis was brought about by the resignation of Northern Ireland's first minister, David Trimble, on July 1. He stepped down because of the Irish Republican Army's refusal to begin destroying its paramilitary weapons.

Mr. Trimble believes that if the weapons issue, or "decommissioning" can be resolved, then all other outstanding issues will follow. "The republicans, who have had lots of time in which to consider and consult, have not come back with any serious proposals about decommissioning, which is the essential point we are considering here," he said. "Now, I hope that they are prepared to make progress on this, but we are very much coming to the last chance."

Looming ahead is an August 12 deadline. By then, Mr. Blair must decide whether to suspend the Northern Ireland assembly or call for fresh elections.

For Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, destroying weapons cannot be seen in isolation, but as one part of a total solution that would also include police reforms and British army demilitarization in the province. "We came to the big compromise on Good Friday in 1998," said Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuinness. "Now, there is no point in the British government expecting us to compromise on the compromise."

While this phase of the talks may not produce the much sought-after final deal, observers maintain that, with a month to go until the deadline is reached, further intense discussions are now expected in the coming days and weeks, as this final end game plays out.