Ulster parties edge towards a deal

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The Independent Online
Ulster Unionists and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party last night agreed a draft agenda for the start of substantive negotiations. It is a significant breakthrough in the multi-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland.

It is believed that part of the deal involves talks on paramilitary disarmament which would run in parallel with dialogue between all sides and the British and Irish governments.

Decommissioning of arms and how it should be handled has been the major stumbling block to progress since the talks started last June, but seven of the nine parties at Stormont were believed to have come out in support of the proposal.

Loyalist representatives had earlier warned that the Protestant paramilitary ceasefire could be threatened unless there was greater movement after the IRA bombing of the Army's Northern Ireland headquarters in Lisburn last Monday. Sinn Fein will remain banned from talks.

Hardliners in the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Robert McCartney's UK Unionists opposed the proposal, but there were hopes late last night of an agreement that could clear the way for serious talking to start.

It is understood that the draft decommissioning proposal is based on a report prepared earlier this year by the international arms commission headed by the former United States senator George Mitchell.

There would be a commitment by all sides to work to implement agreement on weapons. There would also be agreement on, mechanisms necessary to enable further progress on decommissioning.

Sources close to the talks confirmed progress but John Taylor, the Ulster Unionist MP, refused to reveal details. "Discussions are confidential," he said.