Talks resume on Ulster's long haul to peace

While leading parties remain pessimistic about progress, a women's group retains a glimmer of hope

The Northern Ireland peace talks resume today after a four-week break against a background of much gloom in political circles and with few expectations of early progress. One party leader said: "It's going to be a long, long haul."

Progress in the talks has been at a snail's pace, with the parties yet to agree an agenda after several months of haggling.

Reports of an impending deal between David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party and John Hume's SDLP as part of the talks process were described by senior sources in both parties as overblown and exaggerated.

The report said the agreement could cover the thorny question of the decommissioning of paramilitary weaponry, which has dogged political negotiations for more than a year.

Agreement between the two - the largest political groupings on the Unionist and nationalist sides - is regarded as essential for any overall settlement.

Sources in both parties said that while a meeting had taken place between Mr Hume and Mr Trimble last week, little progress had been made. The purpose was to explore whether the two could carry on negotiations in parallel with the multi-party talks.

Many of those involved at the talks accuse others of playing for time, in anticipation of the next election, rather making real efforts towards agreement. The general level of trust and goodwill is, by common consent, very low. A source intimately concerned with the talks, said: 'It's going to be slow, acrimonious, trench warfare."

The talks are surrounded by uncertainty about the intentions of the IRA, which has not resumed bombing in Northern Ireland, even though its ceasefire ended in February. There is, however, widespread apprehension that it is intent on carrying out attacks in Britain.

One early point in contention at today's talks may be the position of the fringe loyalist parties, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, who have associations with Protestant paramilitary groups. The Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party has questioned the propriety of these parties remaining at the table when their paramilitary associates have issued a death threat against the leading Portadown loyalist Billy Wright.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, acknowledged for the first time at the weekend the extent of the political damage caused by the bitter disputes of the loyalist marching season. Speaking at a conference in Oxford, Sir Patrick described the Drumcree stand-off as a black episode in the history of Northern Ireland. "It was a week in which the rule of law was violently, deliberately and ... successfully challenged," he said.

In a metaphor never used by a British minister in relation to Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick described it as a "volcano". He went on: "It was as though a reassuring crust had been formed over the volcano crater. On the surface of that crust we had been executing many an elegant design and had been proposing many an exciting structure. But the volcano was not extinct and when it erupted it did so with terrifying ferocity."

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