Delay cools optimism on Ulster

Click to follow
AN INCREASINGLY upbeat mood surrounding the Northern Ireland political process was checked last night when talks chairman George Mitchell was unable to produce a working paper aimed at teeing up the final stretch of negotiations.

The document was initially due at 8pm, but at 10pm the former US Senator informed the parties that he was not in a position to distribute it.

The delay was taken by the parties as an ominous indication that Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had been unsuccessful in bridging the gaps between them in a series of contacts yesterday.

Last night, Mr Mitchell said he was disappointed but believed the setback was "temporary". He added: "I've had many greater disappointments in this process and in the end ... we've been able to move the process forward."

The setback seems certain to upset a tight timetable which was supposed to see Mr Mitchell at the centre of a weekend of intense activity. The document to be issued last night was styled a synthesis paper, representing an attempt to reconcile the various parties' views. A draft had earlier been given to the British and Irish governments, and was the subject of talks yesterday between the two prime ministers. Over the weekend Mr Mitchell was to meet all the parties for negotiations with the intention of producing a draft of a settlement document on Monday. He had already urged the parties to view next week as a time when they should simply "eat, sleep, negotiate".

Previously, several pessimistic observers and participants had reported a distinct improvement in the atmosphere as the talks entered their final phase. While it was clear that many key details remained to be resolved, none of those involved appeared to be on the point of denouncing the shape of the expected package.

Although exchanges, some of them sharp, continued publicly yesterday, a range of sources said that serious business was being carried out within the talks. All parties, including Sinn Fein, were said to be immersed in the details of a possible deal.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, said yesterday: "We are still negotiating the detail, everybody is now engaging in the real crunch issues." She predicted that negotiations would go "right to the edge," adding: "There are areas of differences but areas I think can be settled within the next six days. No one will get 100 per cent of what they want, but they will get something they can live with."

Sinn Fein chief negotiator Martin McGuinness meanwhile praised Mr Ahern, saying the moment of truth had arrived for Unionists.