Elections should go ahead - Blair

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said he accepts that elections in the North of Ireland should go ahead.

``We are considering now the time that that should be,'' Tony Blair told the British parliament today, as speculation continued over the possible election date.

With intense negotiations continuing following a summit in London on Monday, Sinn Féin is trying to secure a November election to the Belfast Assembly,

``But we have not got too focused on the dates,'' the party's former Nayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, said. ``We expect there to be an election and we would hope to secure that in November. It would not be an attractive proposition for us to go into an election beyond November and we are working to get the election soon.''

Voters should have gone to the polls in May, but the election was cancelled by Britain, at the behest of the Ulster Unionist Party. British ministers resumed direct control of the North last October after the UUP threatened to collapse the Assembly in response to spurious accusations of an IRA spyring at Stormont.

Talks at Downing Street on Monday - attended by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble ended in deadlock but with all sides expressing some degreee of optimism.

Before leaving Downing Street, Mr Trimble said he wanted an election as soon as the Assembly could be restored. And an upbeat Mr Adams told reporters: ``We're taking it that the election is going ahead anyway.''

However, following the general unravelling of the talks process at a similar point earlier this year, and with serious doubts remaining over the UUPs determination to reach a conclusion, there were still concerns that the British PM could postpone the election once again.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, has accused hardline unionists opposed to the Good Friday Agreement of ``deeply misleading'' people by raising the prospect of an alternative peace deal.

``I dont know what that agreement is but I do not see you negotiating.. a better agreement,'' he told Nigel Dodds of the DUP.

Later, there was a dispute as the Conservative Party and the DUP insisted that current legislation dictated that the Assembly elections must take place by November 15.

However, this was contradicted by Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who said that under the existing legislation, the British government has the power to call elections until 15th November, but there was no requirement for the election itself to be held before November 15.

The confusion reflects increasing uncertainty in political circles as efforts continue to put together a deal of historical importance to rank with the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

This week saw the first anniversary of the collapse the North's political institutions in October 2002, and a positive outcome to the current talks are crucially important if confidence in the viability of the Good Friday Agreement is to be sustained.

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