British PM wants Catholic and Protestant parties to re-engage

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern were to meet in London Tuesday to explore reviving the stalled Catholic-Protestant administration in Northern Ireland.

The meeting at Blair's Downing Street office is their first since disarmament officials announced last month they had scrapped all of the Irish Republican Army's stockpiled weapons.

That announcement marked a milestone in the Northern Ireland peace process. But the province's Protestant majority reacted with scorn and skepticism and there appears no sign that Northern Ireland government will be restored any time soon.

During his monthly news conference Tuesday, Blair appeared heartened by the IRA disarmament, but stressed that Catholic and Protestant parties must re-engage.

"It is important for the Unionists and Republicans to build confidence with each other," he said. "I have got no doubt at all that the Republican leadership want to make this process work."

The IRA's involvement in crime, including bank robberies, smuggling and counterfeiting, also remains a political stumbling block.

Blair and Ahern are likely to discuss ongoing attempts to uncover the IRA's criminal empire and the investigation into a property portfolio in Manchester, in northwest England, that involves about 250 residences and businesses worth an estimated US$55 million (Ђ45 million).

Detectives hope the investigation by the U.K. Assets Recovery Agency, a unit with powers to seize the cash, homes, cars and investments of members of Northern Ireland's myriad paramilitary groups, could lead to the reputed chief of the IRA, Thomas "Slab" Murphy.

Blair's Downing Street office said the two leaders would also discuss the impending reports by the Independent Monitoring Commission on IRA activity. Reports from the four-man panel, among them a former CIA deputy director, are expected to be published this month and in January.


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