Ulster talks on brink of new dawn

Unionists set wheels in motion for direct negotiation with Sinn Fein. David McKittrick reports
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The Independent Online
Potentially historic political talks will be convened in Belfast this morning amid uncertainty on when the Ulster Unionist Party will enter the building for negotiations which will involve Sinn Fein.

Most participants and observers believe that David Trimble will lead his Ulster Unionists into the talks, but few think this will happen today.

Instead, the first item on the agenda is likely to be a complaint from the Rev Ian Paisley that Sinn Fein is not a democratic party and should therefore be expelled from the exercise. Most participants believe the talks will not be long delayed by the censure move, since it seems unlikely that he will appear in person to press the case in the presence of Sinn Fein.

However, both the British and Irish governments and others taking part are likely to express their disapproval of last week's statement by an IRA spokesman that the terrorist organisation "have some problems with" the Mitchell principles of espousing non-violence and democracy.

The talks are currently on item 2A of the agenda of the opening plenary session, the point at which they have been for many months.

To move from this point requires the assent of Mr Trimble. If, as most expect, he does not appear today, then the other participants are likely to busy themselves with a range of bilateral and trilateral meetings.

On Saturday, the executive of Mr Trimble's party authorised him to go into talks on whatever basis he judged fit. The general sense is that the party's entry is thus inevitable, though when and how this might happen is still uncertain.

Mr Trimble has spoken of varying the structure of the talks, presumably to ensure that for the moment at least he and his delegates do not sit down face-to-face with Sinn Fein.

More than 80 per cent of the speakers at Saturday's meeting of the executive were in favour of entering talks. This mirrored findings of an opinion poll last week which recorded 93 per cent of party supporters as being in favour of talks.

Northern Ireland political development minister Paul Murphy yesterday told Sky television: "My belief is that the talks will be opening a new era in Northern Ireland politics. I hope and pray that all parties in Northern Ireland will be involved in those talks.

"I particularly hope that the Ulster Unionist Party, which is the largest party in Northern Ireland, will be a major player in those talks because they represent a very important community. And all the evidence from the Unionist community last week, by way of opinion polls and other matters as well, do indicate that there is a feeling among people in Northern Ireland on both sides of the community that the only way ahead is by the parties talking to each other."

Mr Murphy added later: "I don't believe for one second that the Unionist Party will abdicate its responsibility, in the words of Ken Maginnis yesterday, to put their point of view across in any talks and process.

"At least the Ulster Unionist Party has said it will participate."

He encouraged them to join face-to-face talks: "My own view is that it is by far the best thing for the parties to be together in the same room."