British Prime Minister Tony Blair has cancelled plans to go to the North of Ireland to deliver a major speech intended to pave the way for the restoration of a local power-sharing administration.
The decision not to make a trip was made after Blair had separate talks with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, Ulster Unionists and SDLP.
With no signs of a meeting of minds between the parties which could lead to progress towards the restoration of the power-sharing administration at Stormont, Mr Blair decided to stay in London.
He apparently wants to meet with Sinn Féin again before mapping out his plans on the way forward. Sinn Féin holds its annual conference in Dublin this weekend and it it expected to confirm growing concern among republicans at the current political direction.
After meeting Mr Blair, DUP leader Ian Paisley also expressed pessimism. “There is no agreement. There is a great big gulf, the Prime Minister must do something,” he said.
He said Mr Blair should keep to his promise that “criminality would end and terrorism end” and then everyone could move forward.
“If he doesn’t keep to that, we have said as far as we are concerned there is no use talking.”
Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey emerged from his talks with Mr Blair in the House of Commons insisting the talking cannot go on indefinitely.
“We told the Prime Minister we believe there needs to be a floor put on these talks, they can’t to on and on and on, “ he said.
Despite the down-beat mood after this week’s talks, Britian’s Political Development Minister David Hanson is to continue with the meetings.
Despite Blair’s absence, British Direct Ruler Peter Hain and 26-County Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern co-chair a further round of discussions with the parties at Hillsborough Castle on Monday.
The British government is also expected to publish legislation which would allow the British Direct Ruler to call early Assembly elections.
At present the next election is fixed for the spring of 2007, but it is understood the legislation would allow for him to bring them forward to later this year if the negotiations allowed. However he would not be able to delay elections if there had been no deal by next spring.
Mr Hain has already said 2006 is make or break year and indicated he would he opposed to going ahead with an election in 2007 if there was no deal - so it could mean pulling down the shutters on Stormont.