Mitchell: 'We're just a small step from peace'

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The Northern Ireland peace process flared into new life yesterday when an upbeat assessment of the chances of success was followed instantly by a stream of co-ordinated statements from the main players.

The Northern Ireland peace process flared into new life yesterday when an upbeat assessment of the chances of success was followed instantly by a stream of co-ordinated statements from the main players.

While many uncertainties remain, the 10 tedious weeks of the former US senator George Mitchell's review of the peace process appeared finally to have borne fruit. The statements were taken as suggesting a new sense of common purpose on the part of Unionists and republicans.

Mr Mitchell set the new tone when he announced he was "increasingly confident" that a way would be found to resolving the current impasse. He added that during the talks republicans and Unionists had engaged with each other in an unprecedented manner.

His words were seen as indicating that the peace process rollercoaster was once again on the up, in effect ending the confusion which at the end of last week appeared to have reduced it to disarray.

Mr Mitchell announced plans for the parties to publish their positions today. After that, he will issue a final report on the review.

In the meantime the International Decommissioning Commission, headed by the Canadian General John de Chastelain, yesterday delivered an assessment to the parties.

It is envisaged that the Ulster Unionist Party will indicate its willingness to consider Sinn Fein as a partner in government, while Sinn Fein will in turn say it believes that violence is not the way ahead.

The UUP leader, David Trimble, said yesterday that it was too early to judge whether he should take the draft proposals that emerged last week to a meeting of his party's ruling Ulster Unionist Council.

He needs the endorsement of the council, which is his party's policy-making organ, before he can proceed with the rest of the plan.

Another expected step is that the IRA will issue a conciliatory statement and will appoint an interlocutor to speak to General de Chastelain. Mr Trimble appeared to yesterday suggest that such moves would in themselves amount to the beginning of a process of arms decommissioning.

His difficulty will be in arguing against the substantial number of people in his party who define decommissioning as the actual handover or destruction of actual "product", by which they mean IRA weapons.

After Mr Mitchell's announcement, the statements came like autumn leaves. His remarks were instantly commended as encouraging by the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader, John Hume, and Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who said: "It is Northern Ireland's political parties who can take credit for this progress."

Mr Mitchell was next congratulated by the Irish government, though the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists denounced the exercise. A statement said: "This demonstrates how feeble the Ulster Unionist Party's resistance to Sinn Fein's demands have been. This is an immoral and corrupt capitulation."

General de Chastelain called on all paramilitary bodies, including the IRA, to appoint authorised representatives so that the process of decommissioning could be completed by the May 2000 deadline set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Sinn Fein chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, welcomed a comment by the general that disarmament was a voluntary act and a collective responsibility for all parties to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Ulster Unionist security spokesman, Ken Maginnis, said the parties were moving towards a deal, and that a vital part of progress was the acceptance that decommissioning was a necessity. "There has been stalemate for far too long. There is, I think, something that allows parties to the agreement to meet their obligations in a way that does not smack of surrender but rather allows them to acknowledge their voluntary efforts within the process.

"I am hoping everyone is honourable and meets the expectations not only of this party but the expectations of the two governments and President Clinton.

"If these expectations are realised then I hope we will, over a comparatively short period of time, have something that is decisive and will bring stability to Northern Ireland."

Mr Mitchell added: "The pro-agreement parties and the governments share the view that devolution should occur and the institutions should be established at the earliest possible date. It is also common ground that decommissioning should occur as quickly as possible and that the commission should play a central role in achieving this under the terms of the agreement."