Peace talks adjourn without breakthrough

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The Northern Ireland peace talks were today adjourned for the weekend - without making the longed-for breakthrough.

The Northern Ireland peace talks were today adjourned for the weekend - without making the longed-for breakthrough.

Talks chairman, former US senator George Mitchell, said his 10-week review had reached "the final and most critical phase".

The past few days had been intense and he had asked the parties to pause over the weekend and "reflect on the magnitude of the decisions they have to make".

He said the talks would resume in Belfast on Monday.

The latest adjournment came as Prime Minister Tony Blair said agreement was closer now than at any time in the past.

But David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party assembly members failed to endorse proposals which could lead to a breakthrough and devolution in Belfast.

His party deputy leader, John Taylor, MP, confirmed today that he was opposed to the proposals because they offered nothing new on decommissioning.

After the 27-strong unionist assembly group met in private, Mr Taylor said: "Sinn Fein are to a certain extent irrelevant because they say they are no longer connected to the IRA. The IRA are the relevant people."

He said his party would continue to look at the situation. Great progress had been made over the past few years.

"Both sides have moved but we must all move so we meet together on the path of democracy."

Mr Taylor said that was not possible while the IRA kept its terrorist arsenal, and any offer on decommissioning had to be underwritten by the Provisionals.

As Senator Mitchell struggled to keep the process alive he admitted the review of the working of the Good Friday Agreement had gone on much longer than originally intended.

He said: "However, given the gravity of what is at stake, it is appropriate to take the time necessary to thoroughly and carefully consider these important matters.

"I ask all concerned for their patience and understanding."

Government sources insisted the peace process was neither dead nor dying.

An official said: "It is not the end, that is the main message. There is still light in it."

Sources close to Ulster Secretary Peter Mandelson said he had asked for the politicians to be given a weekend for reflection after the intensive and high pressure week of discussion.

He had asked Senator Mitchell to remain at the talks because he was essential to the process.

Mr Mandelson thought the senator had "played a blinder" said the source.

Tony Blair, in South Africa for the Commonwealth Summit, appealed to all sides in the talks to keep the process alive.

Insisting agreement was closer now that at any time in the past, he said: ÒI hope very much that people will keep on trying to think calmly about this, have some patience, understand how extraordinarily close we are to a possible agreement and how far people have come.ÓHe added: ÒWe have never come this far before, we have never been this close. It is there within our grasp.Ó