Mitchell puts Ulster peace talks on hold

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The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland peace process was in downbeat mood yesterday as the inter-party talks which have been dragging on for more eight weeks were put on hold by the former US senator George Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell announced that he would speak to Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, before bringing the parties together again on Monday. He would have a report ready shortly after this, he said.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson characterised it as neither a breakdown nor a breakthrough, saying he was still hopeful that the parties could reach a durable solution but that he believed that would require more time. He added: "I am satisfied of the very serious way people are talking to each other."

Although there is no sense that the talks have irrevocably broken down, the general impression is that all the weeks of negotiations have failed to produce a way out of the impasse. At the moment the likelihood seems to be that Mr Mitchell will be drawing this phase of the process to a close next week.

Last night he met Mr Ahern in Dublin, and will see Mr Blair in London today. A meeting with President Clinton will follow later in the week.

The unresolved arms de-commissioning issue appears to remain as big a barrier as ever to the establishment of a historic new executive which would encompass both the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein.

A clear signal that the talks were not bearing fruit was given by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who left Belfast yesterday to travel to the US for engagements in Indiana and Washington. He is to meet White House officials on Friday.

One of Mr Trimble's negotiating team, Sir Reg Empey, said: "This is serious business for the future of this province and for the future of our people and we are addressing it as seriously as we possibly can."

Mr Ahern gave a downbeat assessment to the Dail in Dublin, saying: "There are still very difficult issues to be dealt with, and the next few days will permit the dialogue to continue. But I am hopeful that Senator Mitchell, with the help of the three governments, can bring this across the line. I don't know whether that is going to be possible."

Alex Maskey, of Sinn Fein, called for speedy action, adding: "All our indications are that the Unionists do not want to share power. There are not enough Unionists who want to share power. There are not enough Unionists who are not paralysed by the prospect of the fundamental change that is required as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. The frustration is still there. The crisis is still with us. The atmospherics are better. We haven't solved the problems."

Two men were yesterday arrested for questioning in connection with the attempted murder of Martin McGartland, a one-time IRA informer who was shot and injured in an attack on Tyneside in June.

One of the men is from Belfast while the other is from Glasgow. They were arrested following an operation which involved Northumbria and Strathclyde Police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.