Parties agree agenda for Ulster talks

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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland political talks surmounted another significant hurdle yesterday. As David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, reports all parties involved - including Sinn Fein - agreed to use Monday's London- Dublin document as a basis for negotiation.

The document, which provided a suggested outline of a scheme with institutions to link not only Belfast, Dublin and London but Glasgow and Cardiff as well, has fulfilled most of the two governments' immediate hopes for it.

But Sinn Fein made it clear that accepting it as a basis for negotiation did not imply approval of its contents. The document envisages Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK though with a substantial new north-south link.

Sinn Fein's policy, it was made clear, remains an end to partition, an option which is not on anyone else's agenda. They will certainly be advancing their arguments in detail, but no one knows whether and when they might lower their sights to the type of arrangements outlined in Monday's document.

Most observers believe this is a key moment for the republican movement. One talks participant said: "This is an important, tricky time for them. There's now a piece of paper floating around out there which continues partition."

Negotiations are now scheduled to begin in earnest next Monday. At a brief plenary session yesterday all eight parties indicated their acceptance of the document as a basis for negotiations. Some voiced reservations about elements of the document, but many expressed eagerness to get down to business.

All this amounts to a something of a breakthrough, given that the document has found favour with the two largest Unionist and nationalist parties, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP. While they approve of the suggested elements of a settlement, however, they differ greatly on their relative importance, with nationalists playing up the north-south institution and Unionists emphasising the relationship with Scotland and Wales.

One nationalist source dismissively referred to the proposed Scottish and Welsh connection as "a solution to a problem which doesn't exist". UUP leader David Trimble, however, said his party was seeking government briefings on Scottish and Welsh devolution since these were highly relevant to Northern Ireland.

Of Sinn Fein he declared: "It's a question for them as to whether they are going to engage with reality. They haven't bothered to do so yet. This is a party which has just dealt with its wish-list in the past."

Sinn Fein negotiator Mitchel McLaughlin yesterday conveyed a somewhat mixed message, implying in a BBC interview that the party would not accept partition, yet did not expect Irish unity immediately. He said: "If it is the case that there is an attempt, that this route-map is in effect an attempt to impose another partitionist settlement, then it will not work and Sinn Fein will not be part of it."

He added, however: "We are much more realistic than to expect that were going to get a united Ireland immediately. We're on the record as saying that. We have a much more pragmatic, reasonable and legitimate proposition."