Peace process is under stress, warns Mitchell

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The Independent Online

THE FORMER US senator George Mitchell delivered a sobering reminder yesterday that the fate of the Northern Ireland peace process is on a knife-edge, with no guarantee that his review will achieve a breakthrough.

THE FORMER US senator George Mitchell delivered a sobering reminder yesterday that the fate of the Northern Ireland peace process is on a knife-edge, with no guarantee that his review will achieve a breakthrough.

The man who helped to broker the Good Friday Agreement also spoke of a heightening anxiety that it may not be implemented, and of a highly uncertain future for the people of Northern Ireland should the accord falter.

He was speaking in Dublin after several weeks in which he has been conducting a review at the request of the British and Irish governments.

He said: "The whole process is under great stress. The outcome is not assured and there is a very real threat of it not proceeding. The result of that happening would be entirely unpredictable. There is no credible alternative to the Good Friday Agreement. If it is not implemented I think the people in Northern Ireland face a highly uncertain future." Mr Mitchell added: "I think it is beyond dispute that the peace process is under stress. The outcome is not assured. I hope that there will be full implementation of the agreement.

"But the pro-agreement parties remain in disagreement over some of the principal areas needed for implementation. The review I am engaged upon will be concluded in the near future. I have not set a specific time, but I do not intend this to be an open-ended process."

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, agreed with the former senator that the review was under great stress, but added that while some were eager to write it off his party had not given up on its chances of success. He said: "I haven't done that yet and I'm not thinking in those terms."

An indication of the great divisions within Mr Trimble's party was, however, supplied by one of his MPs, Jeffrey Donaldson, who was speaking at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting in Blackpool.

In direct contradiction to Mr Trimble's stance that the Good Friday Agreement offers the best way forward, Mr Donaldson declared: "There are many alternatives which can be pursued and many models for democratic government which can be explored if the current initiative fails."

Arguing that a political settlement did not have to include Sinn Fein, Mr Donaldson added: "If what the doomsday merchants really mean is that there is no alternative to a solution which must have the imprimatur of Messrs Adams and McGuinness and the IRA army council, then we are in a sorry state indeed."

Mr Mitchell's warning that no breakthrough is in sight in his review follows a period in which hopes had risen that Mr Trimble and Mr Adams might be on the point of doing business on the issues of devolution and decommissioning.

The fact that the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein had gone into separate weekend retreats, in Glasgow and Donegal respectively, had led to speculation that the two key parties were gearing themselves up for a possible deal.

Although this may have been exaggerated in various quarters, some close observers believe that the two sides, and more particularly the Unionists, have concluded that the Mitchell review may represent the last chance to bring into being a new cross-community government.

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