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N. Ireland talks seen in holding pattern

BELFAST -- The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland tried to revive power-sharing in Northern Ireland yesterday, but reported no progress after four hours of talks with Protestant and Catholic politicians.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern had lunch at Hillsborough Castle, southwest of Belfast, then talked with separate delegations from a half-dozen parties representing the British Protestant majority and Irish Catholic minority.

Afterward, the premiers -- whose close cooperation underpinned Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace agreement -- said they were determined to keep pushing to revive power-sharing, the central objective of that landmark 1998 accord.

The two leaders stressed they wanted a new deal before June, when local parties will be competing in an election for Northern Ireland's three seats in European Parliament. After June, the climate for a deal could be less favorable, as summers in Northern Ireland are marked by divisive Protestant marches.

"The present vacuum is not a satisfactory situation," said Ahern, standing beside Blair at a news conference. "It cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. And we'd prefer not to allow ourselves to be pushed into that position."

Blair said lower-level officials would keep the Belfast dialogue going in the coming weeks. "We've got to make sure we grasp this and take this forward," he said.

Blair and Ahern have been trying for 18 months to revive a joint Catholic-Protestant administration in the British territory.

A four-party coalition led by moderate Protestants and Catholics collapsed in October 2002 over an Irish Republican Army spying scandal. Efforts to revive the administration suffered a blow in November, when legislative elections strengthened hard-liners on both sides of the divide.

The largest Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, opposes the Good Friday pact and refuses to talk directly to Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, which now represents most Catholics.

Ahern and Blair said they agreed that any hope of reviving power-sharing depended on accomplishing two feats: getting the IRA to make new commitments to peace and back those up with specific actions, such as resuming disarmament, and securing a promise from the Democratic Unionists to work with Sinn Fein.

Democratic Unionist chief Ian Paisley, who was the first party leader to meet the prime ministers yesterday, said the IRA must completely disarm before there could be any new administration involving Sinn Fein.

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