Ulster talks momentum now looks unstoppable

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A POSITIVE atmosphere persisted at the Stormont multi-party talks yesterday despite yet another delay in the production of a working paper intended to set the scene for a final few days of intense negotiation.

Lack of agreement between the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP on the arrangements for a new Belfast assembly was said to be behind the delay of a paper by the talks chairman, former US Senator George Mitchell.

The paper was originally due on Friday of last week, which means there has been significant slippage in the timetable envisaged in the run-up to Thursday's deadline for agreement. There is strong speculation that the British and Irish Prime Ministers may fly in for a last-minute burst of negotiation. Given the lack of time and the fact that many vital points remain to be resolved, this promises to be a hectic business.

The recently-developed aura of optimism remained in place despite yesterday's setback, with many of those involved viewing the conclusion of a deal by the deadline of Thursday as practically inevitable. To put it at its most negative, the general calculation is that any party which at this point pulls the plug and frustrates agreement will face the collective wrath of the political world.

The emergence of this new mood appears to bear out the predictions of those who said, during the sterile months of apparently unsuccessful talks, that momentum would develop in the final days.

The remaining sticking-points are believed to concern what were always seen as potentially the most difficult areas. These centre on how power would be shared within a new Belfast assembly, and the type of executive which would run it. A closely-related issue is that of the extent of the powers of a new north-south body, and the relationship of this body to the assembly.

One of the problems providing most anxiety is the possibility of a revolt within David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, and yesterday brought an ominous rumble from this direction. Senior Unionist MP William Ross, who has made no secret of his opposition to his party's involvement to the entire talks process, said that if reports of a cross-border body with powers and a powersharing assembly were correct, there would be nothing in the talks process for Unionists.

He added: "If one-tenth of what I hear being said by some commentators and some spokesmen for other parties is true, then I cannot see any agreement being possible."

Alex Atwood, an SDLP negotiator, said last night: "The SDLP are arguing that within structures in the north there can be no going back, no domination, no abuse of our rights. The Ulster Unionist leadership have to come to terms with those core requirements, structurally, institutionally and in policy terms."