Draft deal edges Ulster closer to peace but differences remain

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The Independent Online
IN THE early hours of this morning, party leaders in the Stormont peace process talks received a copy of a working paper which will form the basis of several days of intense negotiations.

They were finally handed the 65-page document shortly after midnight by the talks chairman, the former US senator George Mitchell.

"We have submitted a paper to the parties today. It includes some of our thoughts and words but it is predominantly a synthesis of the views of the parties themselves," he said.

"They asked that we prepare this document in the belief, which we share, that it is necessary to form an overall view of the various opinions.

"This strengthens our view that a fair and sensible outcome is possible."

Although the delay did not dispel the general mood of optimism which has surrounded the talks since late last week, the problem in producing the blueprint has raised new doubts about whether an agreement can be concluded before the Government's deadline of Thursday.

The document was given only to party leaders on a confidential basis, and Senator Mitchell appealed to the parties not to leak the document, saying "lives and deaths were at stake". However, the first signs were that substantial differences remain.

As a result the document is understood to feature a number of options on various key points rather than a settled view. Senator Mitchell admitted there were several areas on which agreement had not been reached: "Many differences remain between many parties."

With only three days of negotiation remaining, discussions will now have to be conducted at breakneck pace. It also further raises the possibility that the British and Irish prime ministers may fly in for a last-minute burst of talks.

Partly due to the appearance of the document - originally due last Friday - many involved view the conclusion of a deal by the deadline as practically inevitable. At its most negative, the general calculation is that any party which at this point pulls the plug will face the collective wrath of the political world.

The emergence of this new mood appears to bear out the predictions of those who said, during the sterile months of apparently unsuccessful talks, that momentum would develop in the final days.

The remaining sticking-points are believed to centre on how power would be shared out within a new Belfast assembly, and the powers of a new North- South body.