Talks continue as both sides stand ground over guns

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The Independent Online
UNIONISTS AND republicans will gather at Stormont today for more talks on how to resolve the stubborn question of arms decommissioning, which is holding up the Northern Ireland peace process.

Although many cling to the thought that the continuation of the talks itself means progress is still possible, sources say that both Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party have yet to budge on their basic positions.

This means that the chances of success in the enterprise seem now to rest on a sudden breakthrough. No one is sure when these talks will actually end: the former US senator George Mitchell, who is chairing the talks, has made clear he wants to go home, but he will not walk away while even a small chance of progress remains.

Inter-party talks were suspended yesterday but Mr Mitchell spent the day consulting British and Irish government officials. The talks with Unionists and republicans will begin again this morning.

Most of those involved in the political process in Northern Ireland have become little more than anxious observers, while Mr Trimble and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, go head to head on the arms de-commissioning issue.

There is a possibility that Mr Mitchell will, in consultation with the two governments, produce a plan or set of proposals aimed at bridging the gap between their positions. Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, said yesterday: "It's still too close to call, but Unionists will be there until the final curtain, whenever or whatever that may be."

Emphasising his party's demand for clarity in any deal, he added: "Whatever we come up with has got to be real. Unionists are determined it won't be a fudge or open to a whole series of interpretations."

Mr Maginnis said he was convinced of the commitment of those involved in negotiations - but some were finding it difficult to come to terms with the political realities.

"There is no doubt that those involved are quite desperate to find an answer. I think there are those who find it more difficult than others to grapple with the reality of a complex, political situation. But whatever time it takes to break new ground is worthwhile. To get it wrong would be to bring the whole process crumbling about our heads."

Meanwhile, a former MI6 officer who for many years acted as a secret conduit between the IRA and Sinn Fein and successive British governments emerged from the shadows yesterday to make pointed criticisms of the John Major government and the Ulster Unionists.

Michael Oatley, writing in The Sunday Times, described demands for decommissioning as an "excuse to avoid the pursuit of peace". Endorsing Tony Blair's recent judgement of Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness as sincere, he said he had no doubt of their commitment to finding a way forward.

It was not a question of whether an organisation had weapons, he said, but whether it would choose political or violent action. Mr Oatley said the decommissioning issue had "crippled" the peace process from the beginning, and still threatened to destroy it.

Many within the Ulster Unionists, he added, were seeking to withdraw from the Good Friday Agreement while blaming Sinn Fein.