Hopes for Ulster breakthrough 'slim': Sinn Fein

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The Independent Online

Sinn Fein said today that there was only a slim chance of success in clinching a political breakthrough in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein said today that there was only a slim chance of success in clinching a political breakthrough in Northern Ireland.

Former US Senator George Mitchell was holding separate talks with all the pro-agreement parties throughout the day at Stormont and was expected to table a report on his nine-week review of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement very soon.

Everything hangs on reaching a deal between David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein over weapons and power-sharing.

Unionists still want decommissioning to start before Sinn Fein takes its place in the Governmental Executive. The republicans insist it is not a pre-condition.

Arriving for discussions with Mr Mitchell, Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said he believed the Senator was "very close" to making a judgment on whether the review talks were going anywhere.

Mr Mitchell's report could contain the outline of a deal, his own proposals or simply an account of "work in progress".

If it was the last, it would be for the British and Irish Governments to try to take the process forward.

Mr McLaughlin said the "basic template" for the way ahead had been on the table for some considerable time. The challenge was to see if it could be agreed.

What was different now was the serious negotiation between his party and the Ulster Unionists which had been taking place during the review.

There had been no such negotiations before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

There was now a deeper understanding on both sides of each other's position as a result of the recent, and ongoing, dialogue. "I think we are getting very close to decision time."

But Mr McLaughlin added: "We are characterising the chances of success as slim.

"We do have a very deep appreciation of the difficulties that are facing the unionists and I think they have a better understanding of the problems we have.

"Whether or not we can pull this off I am in no position at all to say with any confidence."

Sinn Fein sources have dismissed speculation that the IRA might be about to decommission some of its arsenal in a tactical move as "totally inaccurate".

Before their discussions with Senator Mitchell, Mr Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Assembly party met at Stormont. A party source said it was a regular weekly meeting and nothing should be read into the gathering.