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.

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