Ulster stalemate as Mitchell puts talks on hold

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The Independent Online
THE NORTHERN Ireland peace process flagged yesterday as the inter- party talks that have dragged on for eight weeks were put on hold by the former US senator George Mitchell.

Mr Mitchell said he would speak to Tony Blair, President Bill Clinton and Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, before bringing the parties together on Monday. He would have a report ready soon after, he said.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, said this was neither a breakdown nor a breakthrough. He was still hopeful that the parties could reach a durable solution, but he believed this would need more time. He said: "I am satisfied of the very serious way people are talking to each other."

There is no sense that the talks have irrevocably broken down, but the impression is that the weeks of negotiation have failed to yield a way out of the impasse. Mr Mitchell seems likely to draw this phase of the process to a close next week.

Last night he met Mr Ahern in Dublin, and will see Mr Blair in London today. A meeting with President Clinton will follow later in the week.

Arms decommissioning appears to remain as big a barrier as ever to the establishment of a new executive, which would encompass both the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein.

A clear signal that the talks were not bearing fruit was given by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who left Belfast yesterday for the US for engagements in Indiana and Washington. He is to meet White House officials on Friday.

One of Mr Trimble's negotiating team, Sir Reg Empey, said: "This is serious business for the future of this province and for the future of our people and we are addressing it as seriously as we possibly can."

Mr Ahern gave a downbeat assessment to the Dail in Dublin, saying: "There are still very difficult issues to be dealt with, and the next few days will permit the dialogue to continue. But I am hopeful that Senator Mitchell, with the help of the three governments, can bring this across the line. I don't know whether that is going to be possible."

Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein called for speedy action. "All our indications are that the Unionists do not want to share power," he said. "There are not enough Unionists who are not paralysed by the prospect of the fundamental change that is required as a result of the Good Friday Agreement."

Two men were held for questioning yesterday in connection with the attempted murder of Martin McGartland, a one-time IRA informer shot and injured in an attack in North Tyneside in June. One of the men is from Belfast, the other from Glasgow.