Irish peace talks down but not out as Mitchell review nears end

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No breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process was in sight last night as the former US senator George Mitchell conducted the final stages of his review of the Good Friday Agreement.

No breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process was in sight last night as the former US senator George Mitchell conducted the final stages of his review of the Good Friday Agreement.

Although most assessments were downbeat, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, cautioned against writing off the exercise, saying that the talks could continue for some time.

But despite an apparently improved atmosphere in the negotiations, which centre on reconciling the positions of Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists on decommissioning, there was no sign of a major shift in the positions of either side.

The talks broke up late last night with neither Sinn Fein nor the Ulster Unionists prepared to speak to waiting reporters. This appeared to signify that their immediate priority is to bring the review to a close in as gentle a manner as possible, and perhaps to project that certain limited progress has been made.

The talks, which are being held at Stormont, may continue today. Mr Mitchell has spent some weeks in discussions with the parties, sometimes on a one-to-one basis and sometimes in joint sessions. It was not clear yesterday whether he would deliver an immediate report on his talks, or take some time to draw up a considered assessment, perhaps with suggestions on how to take the process further.

It was also unclear whether he would continue to occupy a central role in future talks, or whether this role would be taken on by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson. "All the parties are talking very well," Mr Mandelson remarked. "We've just got to be very patient indeed and we need to take as long as it takes.

"I'm not going to predict the outcome at this stage. The important thing is that we have a tremendous step forward with the Good Friday Agreement, and it is that that has to be kept on the road."

Mr Trimble said: "Unlike some others, we have not written the review off. We are still here to see if progress can be made. I can't say at this stage whether that will happen or not. I very much hope that it will but my expectation is that this review will continue beyond today."

Although the tone of his remarks aroused some momentary interest, they failed to dispel the prevailing atmosphere of pessimism. The earlier comments of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who had said there was no point in his asking the IRA to decommission weapons, seemed to rule out any agreement.

The Unionist party, wedded as it is to the concept of "no guns, no government", has at no stage looked like moving from the insistence that "product", by which is meant actual weaponry, is needed for the formation of a new devolved government to take place.

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