Ulster peace hopes revive

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The Independent Online
TO THE AMAZEMENT of many observers, the Irish peace process gave every appearance yesterday of surviving the bruising and apparently lethal setbacks that befell it on Thursday.

Although the credibility of the process and the confidence of many of its participants have taken sharp knocks, a consensus has emerged, with surprising speed, that the derailed process can probably be hoisted back on to the tracks.

While the air was not free from recrimination and rancour, many of the key players affirmed yesterday that they regarded the process as the only show in town.

No early breakthroughs are on the cards, however - the likelihood being that the review of the Good Friday Agreement may begin in early September. The form of the review will be discussed on Tuesday at a Downing Street summit involving Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern.

News that the former US senator George Mitchell, who played an important part in the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, is to join the two prime ministers on Tuesday was welcomed by a number of the smaller parties yesterday.

Mr Blair's spokesman said Mr Mitchell would play a role in the review, but given his domestic commitments and young family "we are not talking about a full-time permanent role in the process". President Bill Clinton was said to remain closely interested.

The Alliance party welcomed the prospect of Mr Mitchell's re-involvement, saying no one else enjoyed such trust and respect among the province's political leaders. The Women's Coalition leader, Monica McWilliams, said: "I think he should enter the fray. I do not think the senator wants to give up. He has made his reputation in Northern Ireland and this is not the place where he wants to say he saw failure and could not make his way through it."

A sombre note was struck, however, by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, who said: "For us it is a defining moment in this process. We've all been up and down the helter-skelter of emotions and the pendulum swings and the see-saw of this process. I could not emphasise enough my view of the seriousness of the situation."

After the drama and disappointment of Thursday, which saw the failure to set up a new government and the resignation of Seamus Mallon as deputy first minister designate, the Government set out yesterday to project the message that it was political business as usual. Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, arrived at Stormont before 9am to conduct a series of meetings with the political parties to sound them out about the scope of the coming review.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, indicated he favoured a review that would be confined to the decommissioning issue rather than an exercise that would range over the entire Good Friday Agreement.

He gave no clear indication whether he intended to hold on to his post as first minister designate after the resignation of his deputy, though Mr Blair made plain last night that he wanted him to stay.

Under the terms of the Agreement it appears he may keep the post for six weeks, at which point he is required to seek re-election. This would require him to find a new nationalist deputy, which is highly unlikely. Asked about the issue, Ms Mowlam said: "They were elected together so there is a question-mark over it. We are looking at the legal question of that, but I don't want to go backwards, I want to go forwards."

The paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force signalled yesterday that it is to review its attitude to the peace process over the next three weeks. But Billy Hutchinson, of the Progressive Unionist Party, its political wing, said this should not be seen as a threat.

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