Deadline still March 10th, says Mowlam
The Northern Secretary, Dr Mo Mowlam, says the British government's deadline for the transfer of powers to the Stormont Assembly is still March 10th.
"That remains our clear and firm target," she said yesterday.
With the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein deadlocked over decommissioning, there have been fears in London, Dublin and Washington that the timetable for change could slip.
But Dr Mowlam said: "This is not going to be resolved by creating winners and losers. Both sides need to give a little if progress is to be made."
She stated that recent political developments were a reason for optimism. "When you see party leaders from all sides . . . sitting together in an Assembly chamber, crossing words instead of swords - that gives me hope.
"When you see party leaders like David Trimble and Gerry Adams who, when they have a problem to overcome, can now meet face to face and discuss it, that gives me hope.
"And when you know that the world is watching - people in America and across Europe are opening their papers to read about what is happening in Northern Ireland - that gives me more than hope. It gives me confidence that this agreement will succeed."
Dr Mowlam, who was addressing students at Methodist College in Belfast, said: "However imperfect this peace is - and it is - ask yourself, what is the alternative?" In terms of property sales, unemployment and the entertainment scene, Northern Ireland had made immense progress, she added.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the international decommissioning body, Gen John de Chastelain, held discussions yesterday with the UK Unionist leader.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Bob McCartney said: "The general firmly rejected the claim that he had any pivotal or central political role to play in solving the decommissioning impasse.
"He confirmed that the role of his body was to report progress and relay factually and without comment any developments on the handing over of weapons. He stated that judgmental political decisions as to what sort of decommissioning would be acceptable as credible, substantial or significant were not matters for him."
The DUP leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, has described the Belfast Agreement as "an instrument of war", not peace. He was speaking in Bessbrook Orange Hall, Co Armagh, at the launch of his European election campaign.