Ulster talks at risk over Mitchell row

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The Irish peace progress was under threat again last night after a defiant IRA statement and a new dispute between London and Dublin over the appointment of George Mitchell, a former United States senator, to head the cross-party talks on the future of Northern Ireland.

John Major held up a deal, which was expected to be signed two days ago, after the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, refused to allow Mr Mitchell to chair the "strand two" talks on future relations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

British ministers were privately accused of unravelling an earlier agreement by Dublin. "We thought we had an agreement on Tuesday night but they have unpicked it," said one source. Britain wanted "strand two" talks to be chaired by John de Chastelain, the Canadian member of the Mitchell commission.

The Ulster Unionists and some British ministers were not prepared to trust Mr Mitchell with one of the most delicate areas of the talks. They insisted that Mr Mitchell should be limited to chairing the opening session, and a subcommittee on decommissioning of IRA weapons.

"We are arguing about the whole role of Mitchell," said another source at Westminster. The brinkmanship over the final arrangements threatened to sour the agreement between the two governments for the talks.

As part of his efforts to break the impasse, John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, paid a surprise visit to London to hold brief talks with the leader of the Ulster Unionists. Mr Trimble had taken a hard line when he met Mr Major on Monday.

Mr Bruton, who was breaking short a flight to Ireland after talks with Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany, did not go to meet Mr Major. British Government sources said Mr Bruton had to address the Dail and had no time to meet Mr Major. The Irish Prime Minister told the Dail an "enormous range" of points had now been agreed with the British government about the format of the negotiations.

Mr Major was briefed on the breakdown in the agreement by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, shortly before hosting an official lunch for Mary Robinson, the President of Ireland, at 10 Downing Street, with Mr Spring and other guests.

IRA sources, in briefing a number of journalists, made it clear that any possibility of a ceasefire should be discounted, principally because of the British government's attitude on decommissioning. The likelihood of a ceasefire was described as "remote in the extreme".

One source said: "Let us nail completely the position on decommissioning. The IRA will not be decommissioning its weapons, through either the front or the back doors. We will never leave nationalist areas defenceless this side of a final settlement."

The senior IRA source described the idea of reviewing de-commissioning after three months as a fudge, after which Britain would re-erect the issue as an absolute barrier to progress. He accused the Government of hardening its position.

The comments all but remove hopes that a last-minute compromise could be found which might trigger an IRA ceasefire in time for talks.