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9 December 2004 Edition

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A real breakthrough and opportunity, say Ahern and Blair

Proposals for a comprehensive agreement drawn up by the two governments represent a real breakthrough and unprecedented opportunity. That was the message of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair when the two leaders flew into Belfast on Wednesday. In view of the last-minute difficulties, the Irish Taoiseach and British Prime Minister could have opted to publish the document without formally delivering the proposal, but both leaders clearly felt what had been secured far outweighed any outstanding difficulty.

Publishing the blueprint would show just how far the process had developed. The two governments and the parties were on the brink of an accommodation believed to be impossible a short time ago, said Ahern.

Tony Blair urged people not to become cynical about the political process, pointing to the everyday reality of life in Belfast as a clear indication of the progress that had been and would continue to be made.

Building on the talks at Leeds Castle, the British PM said that considerable progress had been made which paved that way towards an end to 'paramilitarism' and complete decommissioning as well as agreements on policing and power sharing.

On the issue of transparency, Blair acknowledged the significance of confidence building for unionists, but went on to point out proposals for independent observers, in addition to the role of the IICD, had already been agreed. The additional outstanding issue of photographic evidence had not been agreed.

Blair paid tribute to the Taoiseach and all the parties and said that progress thus far had been on the basis of political courage. The British PM acknowledged the process had been "a difficult road for republicans".

DUP members, who had spent years believing they had to say no, had finally begun to think they could say yes, said Blair. Asked if he had become in any way jaded by the process, Blair described himself as at times a weary but not downhearted traveller. There was inevitability about completion of the process, said Blair. All that was required was "extra effort to conclude the journey".

Describing the proposals as a "landmark package", Ahern said the two leaders had felt obliged to give full expression and support to the proposals by delivering them personally.

"Today is truly different," said Ahern. The two governments and all the parties had worked very hard to generate a comprehensive package that could fully realise the vision and promise of the Good Friday Agreement, he said.

Ahern alluded to the Mitchell Principles that envisaged a process in which there would be no victory and no defeat and no requirement for surrender. The process had nothing to do with surrender or humiliation, said Ahern.

Ahern warned against stalling completion and stressed that he would like to see the process finished before Christmas. "I still think that is possible," said Ahern.

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