Ulster Talks: Thirteen parties are involved

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The Independent Online
Although most media attention tends to focus on the Ulster Unionist Party and perhaps most of all on Sinn Fein, there are in fact 13 distinct elements involved in the Stormont talks.

On the Unionist side, David Trimble's party is complemented by the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and Robert McCartney's UK Unionists, both of whom are currently boycotting the talks. There are also the two parties with paramilitary associations, the Progressive Unionists and Ulster Democratic Party.

The SDLP is the largest party on the nationalist side, followed by Sinn Fein. But another strong nationalist element is the Irish government which co-sponsors the talks with Britain, and which traditionally works in co- operation with the SDLP.

There is also a range of other parties, the largest of which is the middle- of-the-road Alliance party, along with a women's grouping and a Labour section. The British government itself obviously plays a major part in proceedings, but so too does an international team of chairmen headed by former US senator George Mitchell.

The team also includes a Canadian general, John de Chasteleine, and a former prime minister of Finland, Hari Holkeiri. While the chairmen generally try to be unobtrusive, many of the participants regard them as a creative element which has proved crucial in helping keeping the talks alive.

All of those involved are charged with, in effect, working out an entirely new political dispensation for Northern Ireland, attempting to map out a new settlement which would remove violence from the scene. The approach is described as three-stranded. One section of the talks deals with arrangements for government within Northern Ireland while another will address the over-arching relations between Dublin and London. The other strand, regarded as the most problematic, is that of North-South relations.

David McKittrick