Tony Blair's promise to step down as British Prime Minister within 12 months threatens to derail the Irish peace process.

In a bid to fend off growing calls from within his own Labour Party for him to quit immediately, Mr Blair confirmed the upcoming Labour Party annual conference would be his last as party leader.

Although not unexpected, it was his first public declaration of when he will leave No 10,

But he defiantly refused to name a definite departure date, saying he would do so at a future time dictated by the interests of the country.

The back-room dealings involved in removing Blair while in power have so far paralleled the eventual ousting of Margaret Thatcher by the 'men in grey suits' at the end of her reign.

Senior members of the Labour Party, including several previously considered to be loyal to Blair, have publicly backed a heave by Gordon Brown.

Brown, currently the British Chancellor and considered the Labour Party's leader in waiting, has become increasingly aggressive in his off-the-record demands for Blair to quit.

After an initial fillip, Blair's popularity has declined steadily since his ill-fated decision to go to war with Iraq. There have also been reports that after more than a decade in power, Blair is showing signs of paranoia and delusions -- closely matching the symptoms displayed by Margaret Thatcher in her final years.

Blair, in an on-camera statement, apologised on behalf of his party for the events of the last week, which have seen eight members of his government resign because he refuses to stand aside.

Those involved were accused by Blair's famously large team of press officers and spin doctors of treachery and disloyalty.

Blair said the public denouement of the wrangling for power was "not our finest hour".

"But I think what is important now is that we understand that it's the interests of the country that come first and we move on"

He adding that it was in the interests of the country to postpone naming a date for his resignation. His critics, however, are maintaining the pressure for his ouster or, at least, an early date for his departure into political history.

Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern offered his strong support to the embattled British PM.

Mr Ahern praised Mr Blair as a great leader and a great colleague to work with on European and Irish issues.

Mr Ahern said he hoped Mr Blair remained in office as the talks deadline for power-sharing between the North's political parties looms.

"We have a very busy agenda between now and November 24, so I look forward to working with him on that," he added.

Mr Ahern and Mr Blair are expected to meet the North's parties at talks in Scotland early next month.

"We now need to get the [politicial] institutions up and running," he said.

"Obviously we've had discussions about alternatives, but I really don`t see alternatives as a success. But if we have to have alternatives, we'll have alternatives," he said.

It is understood that the DUP may attempt to delay the talks process until Blair steps down. Many unionists then expect to receive even more favourable treatment from Brown, who is a Scottish Presbyterian.

However, both British Direct Ruler Peter Hain and 26-County Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern have again reaffirmed the November 24th deadline.

Warning of the consequences of a failure to secure power-sharing, Dermot Ahern has said there will be no shelving of the Good Friday Agreement, but there will be "measures to prevent political drift", including bringing forward joint British-Irish "partnership arrangements".

"The Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair have made clear their intentions. If, by November 24th, a power-sharing Executive has not been formed, the two governments will bring forward partnership arrangements to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is actively developed across all its functions," he said.

"As part of that they have also made clear their commitment to a step-change in North-South co-operation and action for the benefit of all," he said in Oxford.

"We are agreed on this and we are prepared to give practical expression to it. Of course, in the absence of devolved institutions, this will be less than everyone would wish. In a sense there will be no winners from this outcome. We will all lose, but none more so than the political parties in Northern Ireland," Mr Ahern said.

Peter Hain, speaking at the same conference, told unionists their siege mentality must end with the move of mainstream republicanism away from the physical force tradition.

Hain said unionists had had a siege mentality since 1641, when a rising against the plantation of Ulster resulted in the deaths of planters. This attitude, he said, had no remaining justification.

"Whatever the unionist reservations about the Good Friday agreement, the removal of articles two and three of the Irish Constitution was hugely significant," he said. "So is the principle of consent . . . the constitutional issue can only ever be revisited through peaceful and democratic means."

Hain warned that if the November 24 deadline was missed, "it won't come around again . . . I won't be chasing after the parties on November 25 and in the days and weeks afterwards saying, 'Please come and see me, and let's see how we can find a way forward'. We will just get on with it and do it our way."

"We can all point to parts of the world that have failed to grasp the opportunity and to capitalise on the political moment. This autumn I genuinely believe we are at such a moment in Northern Ireland. There is an opportunity that has to be taken now because I do not believe this opportunity can be delayed further and certainly not beyond November 24."

Also speaking at the Oxford event, Gregory Campbell of the DUP shrugged off the deadline and suggested that his party required further unspecified concessions from the British government and the IRA.

"We will not shirk from taking difficult decisions but the difference between the comments of those who lecture us from either Dublin or London is that long after their elections are over, whether they are returned or rejected, we have to live with the legacy of decisions we take now," Campbell said.

Later this week Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair will meet to review the British and Irish plan aimed at restoring devolution. The two prime ministers are likely to hold separate talks with Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.

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