Hopes and suspicions as talks draw near

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The Independent Online
Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish governments will spend the weekend in intense preparations for Monday's opening talks on the future of Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.

Opinions vary on whether the talks will represent the first steps towards a momentous new agreement, or whether they will degenerate into sterile bickering and walkouts.

The only near-certainty is that Sinn Fein will not be at the talks, since there appears no likelihood of the IRA declaring a new ceasefire in time. Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, addressing a rally in Belfast last night, warned that there would be no peace settlement if republicans were locked out.

Although the absence of the republicans mean the talks will be more limited, some hope that they may make progress. Others hope a ceasefire will follow, allowing Sinn Fein to enter.

The Irish Government and the main nationalist party, John Hume's SDLP, appear highly satisfied with the agenda and the arrangements thrashed out during this week's negotiations. Unionist politicians, by contrast, have been critical.

The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists particularly attacked the chairmanship given to the former US Senator, George Mitchell.

Mr Paisley's deputy, Peter Robinson MP, said: "What degree of impartiality can Unionists expect from a Catholic Irish-American from the same stable as the Kennedys?"

There is expected to be much argument over the agenda and decommissioning of arms.

The republicans will be observing whether the main Unionist leaders take as stern a line on the question of loyalist weaponry as they have on IRA decommissioning.

John Major yesterday brushed aside suggestions that the MP Terry Dicks was about to eliminate his Commons majority by resigning the party whip over the Government's policy on Northern Ireland.

While party managers insisted that the immediate crisis over Mr Dicks had already been been averted, the MP was said by colleagues to be considering the issue. Mr Dicks' complaints about Mr Mitchell's role have exposed pessimism over the outcome of the talks on theunionist wing of the Tory party.

Mr Major said in his Huntingdon constituency: "I think when Terry sees what's happening, the problem will fall away. The peace talks are operating on the back of the Mitchell report. Everyone agrees we will have to assert that they accept the Mitchell report at the outset of discussions."

Ministerial efforts to calm backbench unrest over the influence Mr Mitchell will exercise were boosted yesterday when Andrew Hunter, chairman of the Tory backbench committee on Northern Ireland, said that his own "fears and apprehensions" had proved "groundless" now that he had read the documents outlining the form of the talks.

But another senior Tory backbencher, Nicholas Budgen, said Mr Dicks was not alone in his views. "A general argument that Terry Dicks put forward about resenting the interference of the Americans, and of being sceptical as to whether these talks can lead to any binding solution, is a view which is widely shared on the Tory benches."