Ulster peace talks go to the wire

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The Independent Online
CRUCIAL TALKS on Northern Ireland's future were continuing late last night after a day in which pessimism jostled with optimism about a breakthrough that could break the long-standing logjam on arms decommissioning.

Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, were locked in talks all day as they sought a compromise to reconcile the positions of the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, and the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams.

The see-sawing fortunes of the negotiation were described by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, who told the Commons during the afternoon that a great deal of progress had been made. She added: "At lunchtime we were feeling positive. By the time I left to come here an hour later, people were getting worried again. It goes up and down."

Most of the speculation centred on whether Mr Trimble could go for a deal that would inevitably involve movement away from his party's long- standing position that it would not enter government with Sinn Fein unless actual IRA decommissioning had taken place.

Pat Doherty, the Sinn Fein vice-president, continued to rule this out yesterday, saying: "I do not believe the IRA will be decommissioning within the next two or three weeks to facilitate the peace process. They have made their own position abundantly clear."

The general feeling was that the republicans would stick to this position, leaving Mr Trimble to consider whether he could, or should, accept this and none the less agree to enter government. Some of his senior party members have declared their absolute opposition to any such move.

The talks continued against the ominous backdrop of a police warning that extreme loyalists are intent on using violence after the authorities banned next Sunday's Drumcree Orange march in Portadown. The RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, said: "We have intelligence to indicate that some people, a small minority, would intend to use these events to be engaged in violence. We are prepared for that contingency. We have that intelligence and we will be acting upon that intelligence.

"I think there are dissident so-called loyalists who would intend to use the forthcoming event as some sort of cover for them to be involved in violence. That's something we are alive to and we will be doing everything we can to thwart it."

He went on to urge Orange Order leaders to take into account their responsibilities for bringing large numbers of people on to the streets if it was predictable that some would exploit this and use violence.

During the course of yesterday, the Ulster Unionist Party deputy leader, John Taylor, gave a series of pessimistic assessments about the chances of success in the political talks. They ranged from "about 4 per cent" to "about minus 3".

Mr Trimble spoke in terms that were both more general and less pessimistic, saying: "The phrase republican movement includes two things, a political party and a private army. It must decide which of the two it prefers. It cannot keep both any longer.

"We hope it will make the right decision to abandon forever the army when it commits itself wholly and exclusively to peace and democracy."