Ulster talks go on this week

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The Independent Online

David McKittrick

David McKittrick

24 October 1999

The former US senator George Mitchell yesterday extended his review of the Good Friday agreement into next week, signalling as he did so that the Belfast talks were not on the point of a breakthrough.

The move came after days of intensive talks at Stormont which centred on lengthy negotiating sessions involving Sinn Fein and David Trimble's Ulster Unionist party.

Making the announcement, Senator Mitchell said: "There should be no false optimism - significant differences remain. But I am persuaded that the parties are making a sincere and serious effort to bridge those differences."

He said the parties had agreed to meet each other tomorrow and on Tuesday. On Wednesday he would return to Stormont with more suggestions for them, adding that in view of the gravity of what was at stake he felt it justified in providing that brief time for additional discussion.

The fact that the review will go on for a few more days, having been expected to come to a close this weekend, will keep alive a glimmer of hope that significant progress can be made.

Many of those involved have noted in recent days that the atmosphere within the talks has improved significantly, even though the central issues of decommissioning and devolution remain unresolved.

Sinn Fein and Unionist leaders are said to have spent a great deal of time together, and to have carried on discussions over dinner on Friday night.

The Rev Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist leader, was however scornful of the chances of progress, saying that the review was "in reality dead". He said of Mr Trimble: "His only policy is to remain talking within the review so he can escape any blame. I think Mr Trimble cannot get a majority in the Assembly party and he hasn't a majority in the parliamentary party, nor can he get a majority on his executive for such a proposal. So he has been caught in his petard."

Mr Trimble himself yesterday mounted a spirited counter-attack on his Unionist critics in an article in the Belfast Newsletter. Dismissing them as "prima donna Unionists", he declared: "We have been at the forefront of negotiating a change for the betterment of Northern Ireland and the Union. Certain elements within the Unionist family do not know how to cope with change."

Sinn Fein's chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, said: "We welcome the fact he is addressing, possibly for the first time in a very overt way, that huge constituency within Unionism that recognises that there has to be a process of change."