Three days that shook and moved the peace process

THE NORTHERN Ireland office has had a rollercoaster week. Mo Mowlam's high-risk Maze visit ultimately proved successful, although the high media profile it received alarmed some NIO officials. That had been a desperate measure to keep the peace process on track. By yesterday, however, it looked as if it was not only on track, but moving into new terrain.

That was when the news broke of significant discussions between Downing Street and the Ulster Unionists about new proposals for the talks, including the concept of a "Council of the Isles" - linking Northern Ireland's putative devolved assembly with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, as well as Westminster and Dublin.

This particular commotion had been sparked by an article in the Times on Friday written by John Lloyd of the New Statesman who is close to New Labour and considered sympathetic by Unionists. Mr Lloyd outlined proposals being prepared as a paper by David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, which included the council of the isles and weaker north-south executive powers. Mr Trimble "has signalled its outlines in talks with the Prime Minister," he wrote.

The Daily Telegraph ran with the story, leading its front page yesterday with a report of the negotiations between Mr Blair and Mr Trimble. In Tokyo on Friday, Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, had confirmed the story. He may have done this readily because Ulster provided a welcome alternative to stories about Robin Cook's extravagant love life, but by yesterday Downing Street sought to play it down. The new line was that this was only one of many options on the table.

For the NIO, it was a headache. The talks are at an extremely delicate stage, and nationalist politicians were angry at the way the news became public. In fact, the news is not so surprising. A council of the isles was first proposed by Unionists in the 1970s, when the shorthand was "Iona" - islands of the North Atlantic. David Trimble relaunched the idea in discussions with Blair after last May's election. The Irish government was already aware of its existence, because documents pass regularly between participants in the talks. But Irish officials do not recognise material presented in the British media as the way forward, and are less than delighted.

To Dublin, and most nationalists, the crucial thing is the place of any such initiative in the broader context of a settlement. The key focus is on "north-south" relationships spelt out first in the Joint Framework Document in 1995. The Unionists have made it clear that the proposals to give cross-border bodies executive powers are unacceptable. Mr Blair may be willing to assist by watering them down. But it will be a delicate balancing act if the nationalists and Dublin are to be kept on board.

At Westminster, meanwhile, the truce between Labour and Conservatives holds, although it is under stress. The Tories have criticised the Government's invitation to Gerry Adams to Downing Street, and Ms Mowlam's visit to the Maze prison. "We support the objectives of the process, but we reserve the right to criticise the handling of the process," said a party source.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Barnardo's: Corporate Audit and Inspection – Retail Intern (Leeds)

    Unpaid - £4 lunch allowance plus travel to and from work: Barnardo's: Purpose ...

    Recruitment Genius: Content Writer - Global Financial Services

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

    £35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: From modest beginnings the comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Receptionist

    £15000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future