Ulster deadlock over Mitchell

Chairmanship row dogs peace talks.
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The Northern Ireland political talks yesterday experienced a day of deadlock as the participants failed to reach agreement on the question of chairmanship.

After a 15-minute plenary session in the morning, the day was taken up by a series of bilateral meetings as agreement was sought on the question of the former United States Senator George Mitchell's acceptability as overall chairman.

The Irish government and John Hume's Social and Democratic Labour Party are strongly supportive of Senator Mitchell, but the Rev Ian Paisley said his Democratic Unionist Party would not accept him. David Trimble's Ulster Unionists have taken up a less clearcut position, with reports that they might accept him, though with a curtailed role.

When it was put to Ian Paisley Junior that Senator Mitchell was a senior political figure with international credentials, he replied: "Well, Mickey Mouse has international credentials." He alleged Senator Mitchell was "implacably opposed" to the Unionist position.

The former Senator was last week invited by London and Dublin to chair plenary sessions in the talks. The Unionist objection to this is on two main fronts. Some, such as Mr Paisley, object to him because, they allege, he would not be impartial. Others say the question of chairmanship should not have been settled in advance by the two governments, and should have been subject to ratification by the talks participants.

Yesterday was thus lower-key than the first day of talks, which was marked by the turning away of Sinn Fein from the conference venue. Once the chairmanship issue is resolved, agreement will then be sought on the agenda.

The Irish government is determined to retain Senator Mitchell in an important role because Dublin believes that his presence increases the chances of the IRA renewing its ceasefire. Republicans have made clear that they approve of his involvement, regarding it as a sign of continuing American engagement in Northern Ireland, which they welcome.

There had been hopes that a positive start to the talks would encourage republicans to come forward with another ceasefire, but the unpromising start has been a disappointment in that regard. On the early evidence, Sinn Fein strategists may feel relieved that they are not involved in the discussions.

The chairmanship issue poses an important strategic choice for Mr Trimble's party. Some Ulster Unionists will favour forming a new "pan-Unionist front" with Mr Paisley, while others will be anxious to keep their distance from his party. Although the parties were critical of each other during the election campaign, much of the Unionist electorate will be in favour of a united front in the talks.

In the Commons yesterday the Prime Minister, John Major, said Sinn Fein had only themselves to blame for their exclusion from the talks. He declared: "Their exclusion from these talks is their fault. That is the position of this Government, the Irish government, the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and that situation is not going to change."