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Leaders push N. Irish for concessions

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland led negotiations Monday to push for more Irish Republican Army disarmament and a new start for Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government.

Working side by side at Hillsborough Castle outside Belfast, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern planned to spend the day — and possibly the night — cajoling the key local British Protestant and Irish Catholic parties that back the province's peace accord into making more concessions.

The landmark 1998 pact proposed that the IRA disarm and the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party have a share of power in Northern Ireland alongside Protestants and moderate Catholics. But the unwieldy coalition repeatedly has faltered over Protestant doubts that the IRA's 1997 cease-fire is genuine.

"In order to get people working together again, we have to get guarantees from each party to the other party," said Britain's governor for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy.

Efforts to restore trust face an immediate practical deadline.

The Northern Ireland legislature, from which the Protestant-Catholic administration is drawn, faces re-election May 1. British law requires the election to be called or canceled by March 21. Many key Northern Ireland politicians plan to be in Washington the week of St. Patrick's Day, March 17, making a deal now essential, all sides have agreed.

The local government had been the most hard-won achievement of the 1998 deal, which led to a Nobel Peace Prize shared by Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Catholic moderate leader John Hume.

But Britain stripped power from local hands in October after police uncovered evidence of an IRA spying operation inside the power-sharing government. Sinn Fein's top legislative aide was among four people charged with espionage-related activities.

Protestants insisted they wouldn't resume work with Sinn Fein unless the IRA completed the disarmament it began in October 2001 and halted all other hostile activities, such as importing new weapons and planning potential attacks.

Sinn Fein rejected weekend reports in Belfast newspapers claiming that the IRA had decided to get rid of the vast bulk of its stockpiled arsenal, which police say includes 100 tons of weapons, including Semtex plastic explosives, mortars, rockets and more than 1,000 firearms.

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said he believed Monday's talks would advance the goal of taking "all of the weapons, including the IRA weapons, out of the political equation permanently."

In return, Sinn Fein wants Britain to publish a detailed list of military cutbacks, to toughen the already substantial program for reshaping the province's mostly Protestant police and to transfer power over Northern Ireland security to local hands.

The major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionist Party, is seeking new powers that would allow Sinn Fein to be expelled from government posts if the IRA is implicated in renewed truce violations.