Ulster talks enter final stage

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The Independent Online
THE Northern Ireland talks process enters a crucial final stage today, with the Government insisting that any agreement among the parties must emerge before Easter.

This means that London, Dublin and the eight of the 10 Ulster parties which attend the talks expect an intensive three-week burst of negotiation. This may finally reveal whether agreement is possible among elements as diverse as Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists.

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern, are expected to become involved at some stage, with both governments making concentrated efforts to identify common ground.

Most of those involved seemed to say privately yesterday that agreement is possible but not probable, given the strains which exist within all the major elements, in particular Unionism and republicanism. The most difficult area is generally agreed to be that of the proposed new north- south body linking Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Unionists want as modest a body as possible, and want it to be firmly under the control of a new Belfast assembly. Nationalists, by contrast, want a body which will be powerful, capable of evolving, and which will be able to withstand any efforts of a Belfast assembly to limit its role.

Aside from the broad constitutional issues, other problematic areas include the question of policing and the release of paramilitary prisoners in the event of a settlement.

The weekend brought several reminders that problems will not be confined to the talks building. A large bomb, discovered in the Irish Republic on Saturday night, is assumed to have been the work of the breakaway republican Continuity Army Council. It was apparently intent on destabilising the talks with a major attack on one of Ulster's towns or cities. The device, containing 1,300lb of home-made explosives, was found in a shed north of Dundalk.

In Belfast, meanwhile, police fired plastic bullets during rioting in north Belfast. Up to 30 petrol bombs were thrown by loyalists during the clashes, which police said took place after officers tried to stop about 50 loyalists heading into a nationalist area.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, said: "We are serious, we are realistic, we are going to see if success can be achieved, we are going to work hard for it, but it is not guaranteed."