Mitchell tipped as 'supreme chairman' of all-party talks

Former US senator set to preside at Monday's negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland. Colin Brown reports

The former United States senator George Mitchell is expected to be appointed as a "supreme chairman" in charge of the cross-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland following a day of difficult detailed final negotiations between London and Dublin.

John Major and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, are to hold urgent talks to try to break the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process just days before the start of all-party talks.

Officials of the two prime ministers were working to arrange a telephone conversation in order to try to clear the outstanding issues after an impasse was reached in talks in London yesterday between Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister. Sir Patrick and Mr Spring had held three-and-half hours of discussions.

Although the two ministers were unable to settle the final arrangements for Monday's all-party negotiations in Belfast, Sir Patrick and Mr Spring said that they had made "substantial progress" amid signs that the shape of a deal was falling into place.

The issues that remain to be settled by Mr Major and Mr Bruton - probably in a telephone conversation today - include the thorny issue of the decommissioning of terrorist weapons and the chairmanships of the various strands of the talks.

Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, claimed that the Government had agreed to the appointment of a "supreme chairman" after he emerged from talks with the Prime Minister last night.

David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, is seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Mitchell - who is abroad - to discuss his role.

Downing Street sources denied that an appointment had been made, but there was strong speculation at Westminster that both the Irish and British governments will propose Senator Mitchell to head the talks.

Mo Mowlam, the Labour Party spokeswoman on Northern Ireland, last night gave her support to Senator Mitchell.

Setting out Labour's policy on Ireland, she declared: "Surely all parties would welcome external assistance again now to help bring peace to these islands."

She said Mr Mitchell did a "very positive and competent job" with two other members of the international commission "and should be invited back to assist on delicate negotiating issues".

"Some of the difficulties at present faced over the thorny issue of decommissioning are, I fear, as a result of people or parties positioning themselves to avoid blame and to save face," she added.

Mr Mitchell won widespread respect for his handling of the review of decommissioning of IRA weapons, which paved the way for Monday's cross- party talks.

Sir Patrick and Mr Spring resumed their talks late last night, underlining the difficulty of resolving the final details.

It is understood that they also had difficulty resolving an agreed time- scale for dealing with IRA weapons.

The Prime Minister's office said progress would be reviewed in September, but it would not be a deadline.

However, Mr Trimble took a hard line talks with Mr Major on Monday and it may prove difficult to persuade the unionists to avoid a deadline.

The Irish Foreign minister indicated that if Sinn Fein join the talks late, they will still be given three months to discuss decommissioning by the IRA. Sinn Fein will be excluded unless a ceasefire is declared by the IRA.

The IRA said that the prospects for a renewed ceasefire ahead of next Monday's all-party talks on Ulster's future were "extremely remote".

A senior IRA source told the BBC that the Provisionals' remained ready to "enhance the potential for real and meaningful peace talks".

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