Mowlam raises Ulster hopes

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MO MOWLAM, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, yesterday joined the chorus of optimism over the peace process as she left for St Patrick's Day celebrations in the USA.

Before leaving for Boston and Washington DC, Ms Mowlam said Northern Ireland was "on the brink of an historic opportunity", adding: "For the first time in 70 years unionists and nationalists, republicans and loyalists, are gathered around the table to reach a settlement to the benefit of everyone in these islands."

President Clinton is to meet key players in the talks in their St Patrick's Day visits to Washington on Tuesday and may visit Belfast later this year. Separate meetings have been set up with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, SDLP leader John Hume, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and the Ulster Democrats' Gary McMichael.

The Northern Irish political leaders will also attend a White House reception that evening. Mr Adams, fundraising in New York in advance of next week's meeting, confirmed that Sinn Fein would return to the peace talks after meeting the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on Thursday.

But the professed optimism of Mr Clinton, Mr Blair and Ms Mowlam is at odds with the private views of perhaps most Stormont participants, who see no sign of a real breakthrough.

The vital agreement still lacking centres on North-South relations. It is accepted that a new body would come into being, but its nature and the scope of its powers are still fiercely debated. The Irish Government, the SDLP and Sinn Fein favour a body with widespread powers, but Ulster Unionists insist it should have a merely consultative role.