A series of talks are to take place before Christmas with a view to salvaging the northern peace process.

The US Special Envoy, Richard Haass, is to hold a series of meetings in London, Belfast and Dublin as efforts continue the map the political geography following last week's election successes for Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to hold talks with key figures in London, his official spokesman said. The nationalist parties, meanwhile, have held a meeting on the defence of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in the months ahead.

Despite the emergence of the anti-Agreement DUP as the largest party, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the majority of people in the North support the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and want to see it implemented.

Tony Blair described the outcome of the election as ``a more difficult situation''. However, he claimed that there is ``no sense that the political situation which needs resolving is going to lead to a security crisis.''

Mr Blair was later accused of ignoring the ongoing terror directed against the Catholic comunity -- including the murder of James McMahon, who died after being viciously beaten by three masked loyalists with baseball bats in Lisburn on November 20.


The current task for the two governments is to put together a talks process which can involve the DUP, although hopes that that process can succeed remain low.

It was reported this evening that a three-month deadline will be put on the planned review of the Good Friday Agreement, which is to officially get underway January. Following that, according to official sources, an attempt will be made to resurrect the Stormont Assembly and power-sharing Executive. If that fails, a June deadline for a further election to the Assembly will likely be set.

The DUP have already come under pressure to save the peace process by firstly engaging in dialogue with Sinn Féin. But DUP leaders have so far avoided specifics of what they plan to do.

``We recognise it might take a little time for some people to acknowledge that there has been a swing in unionist opinion and that change is going to be necessary,'' said DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson.

Meanwhile, the party has vehemently denied reports it has held secret talks with the Dublin government. Nigel Dodds, MP for North Belfast, insisted any suggestion they had been involved in such discussions was nothing but ``wild accusations'' and ``completely false''.

During Northern Ireland questions in the House of Commons in London, the SDLP's Seamus Mallon asked Northern Secretary Paul Murphy what he knew about negotiations between the DUP and the Taoiseach's administration.

He asked what indication the DUP had given to the Irish Government that it wanted to ``work the Agreement rather than smash it''.

He asked ``when we might expect these poachers to become gamekeepers?''

Mr Dodds rubbished Mr Mallon's claims describing them as ``completely false.'' Claims of a similar nature published at the weekend by a Sunday newspaper were now ``the subject of legal action'', he added.

In these circumstances, many remain to be convinced that the DUP will engage in positive dialogue to end the political impasse.

An Ulster Unionist spokesman said: ``We will see what happens when they have to make tough decisions. It is likely they will just revert to type and run away.

``It will be interesting to see if they can prove us wrong.''

However, the UUP have still not resolved their own divisions over the Agreement. At the House of Commons today, party leder David Trimble instead chose to put pressure on Republicans for more concessions on arms decommissioning.


Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams has said he is holding a series of meetings as part of an effort to develop a co-ordinated approach to defending the Good Friday Agreement.

``There is also an onus on the pro-Agreement parties to prepare for the review to ensure that the principles, structures and ethos of the Agreement are protected and developed,'' he added.

And speaking in advance of an address at Trinity College in Dublin tonight, Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness MP said that ``the minority rejectionist position must not be allowed to place a stranglehold on future progress''.

Mr McGuinness pointed out that it last weeks election, almost half a million people voted for pro-Agreement parties.

``That is 70% of the total electorate,'' he said. ``Their voice must be heard and not drowned out by the rejectionist camp who gained around 30% of the votes.

``It is my belief that a way can be found through the current difficulties. But I am a realist. We have since the election sought meetings with the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister and the other parties.

``We need to build a pro-Agreement axis which will either compel the DUP into the institutions or, if they refuse, will leave them behind.

``But the increase in the DUP vote first and foremost poses a challenge for the British government.

``The DUP can refuse to participate in the institutions, that is up to them. But they cannot be allowed to veto the other elements of the Agreement.

``It is therefore up to Mr Blair along with Mr Ahern to proceed with their commitments on the other outstanding matters.''

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