Final push for deal in Ulster

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Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein were still at odds over paramilitary arms as former United States Senator George Mitchell tried to close the deal on Northern Ireland's future.

Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein were still at odds over paramilitary arms as former United States Senator George Mitchell tried to close the deal on Northern Ireland's future.

As the discussions reopened after the weekend break Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed optimism that the peace process would move forward.

The current stage in the Mitchell Review gave a "one-off opportunity" to gain peace and mutual respect among the Province's communities, he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"We have not failed at all yet and I hope we never do so - let us hope that in the next few days that the leadership of people like David Trimble, who have shown incredible courage, will continue to exercise that leadership," he said.

Mr Blair, who was speaking from South Africa, where he has been attending the Commonwealth Heads of State conference, said: "I have learned enough and I think everyone else has to know that it is not sensible to talk of breakthroughs and the rest of it until it really happens - but let us hope that it will happen.

"I am sure that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want it to happen, and the one thing I am convinced of - and I think Senator Mitchell has come to the same conclusion - is that the key parties in this process do want it to work."

Ulster Unionist Party security spokesman Ken Maginnis said he needed "clarity and certainty" on decommissioning before his colleagues could enter a power-sharing government with republicans.

But Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said he believed both parties could sell the agreement on the table to their respective constituencies.

The parties had reached a point where decisions on setting up the political institutions could be made, he told the Today programme.

"We are awaiting a decision of the Unionist Party and we hope it will be a positive decision this morning," he said.

"There is a very complex package negotiated out between us. Hopefully the Unionist Party will endorse the position that has been adopted by their negotiators we are seeking the same endorsement from ours."

"We believe that this process can in fact end all vestiges of political violence in our society. It can provide for all of us, whether we are Republican or Unionist the opportunity, to pursue our political ambitions."

Mr McLaughlin avoided saying whether Sinn Fein would be able to give David Trimble, the UUP's leader, further clarification on decommissioning.

He insisted that the process had to move forward so that further problems could be dealt with gradually, saying: "We will not unpick, we will not breakdown the hostilities that have existed for nearly three centuries here in a matter of weeks - it will take collaboration between us for some considerable time."

He believed Mr Trimble had enough within the deal to take the process forward.

"I believe that whilst there will be those who oppose him he must confront those, as we must oppose those within Republicanism who oppose what we are attempting to do. "But I believe there is sufficient support within each of our constituencies to ensure that this will work and we will put behind us forever any prospect of a return to violence."

SDLP senior negotiator Mark Durkan said the deal offered "an opportunity for everyone" and the chance of "comprehensive implementation" of the Good Friday Agreement.

Senator Mitchell was returning to Stormont this morning for what he hopes will be the final sessions of 10 weeks of tough negotiations in his review of the Belfast peace accord.

Unionists are considering a deal which includes IRA and Sinn Fein statements backing the peace process and disavowing all violence, and the nomination of a shadow cabinet in early December.

It is anticipated that the agreement will also mean a start to a hand-over of IRA weapons by late January - but unionists say this is not explicit enough.

Mr Maginnis said: "We are going to have to get a degree of certainty and clarity in respect of what is already proposed.

"Unless we can have that, to move forward towards something that would break down in a matter of weeks would be foolhardy. You cannot have a government while illegal weapons and illegal organisations are intertwined in the process."

Mr Maginnis challenged the British, Irish and American governments and the SDLP to underwrite the disarmament process.

"If two governments, the US president and the SDLP believe the IRA should decommission, let them spell out with clarity and certainty how they would react if they are betrayed by what Sinn Fein says," he said.

Should he decide to move ahead, Mr Trimble faces an uphill struggle to get the deal accepted, with strong opposition from influential party members, including his deputy, John Taylor.

Mr Taylor said the deal was skewed in favour of republicans and unionists must get a better offer to attract them into an inclusive executive.

Ulster Secretary Peter Mandelson was telling unionists to take a leap in the dark, Mr Taylor said.

The Strangford MP said it was also unfair that unionists as well as republicans would suffer if the executive was rescinded in the event of the IRA not getting rid of its arsenal.