Ulster Talks: Unionists set for place at peace table

Unionist parties stayed away from the opening of all-party peace talks in Belfast. But, as David McKittrick, Ireland Correspondent, reports, it is only a matter of time before they join in.

The Northern Ireland peace process notched up another little increment of history yesterday as multi-party talks opened at Stormont with Sinn Fein at the table.

It was not, however, the inclusive occasion which the British and Irish governments had hoped for, since a Protestant boycott of the proceedings turned Stormont into a Unionist-free zone for the day.

But both governments have high hopes that David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and other loyalists will make their entry soon, possibly as early as today, thus bringing mainstream Unionists and the republican movement into the same process for the first time ever.

Former US senator George Mitchell called a plenary session of the talks to order at 2pm yesterday, with Sinn Fein and four other parties arrayed around the large conference table. The chairs set aside for five Unionist parties were empty.

At that moment Mr Trimble was eating soup and a roll in a Belfast city centre cafe, affecting not to notice the five television camera-crews capturing his every movement. The exercise seemed to be a studied show of nonchalance in the face of mounting pressure to go to the talks, and a determination not to be dragooned to the table prematurely.

Instead of attending at Stormont he made arrangements to meet Mr Mitchell later in a nearby hotel, rather than going to Stormont, for discussions on what he described as "the precise procedural arrangements for our involvement".

The two governments have floated the idea of a procedural motion which would allow the talks to make a start on substantive issues even in the absence of the Unionists. But, since a statement from Mr Trimble said that if his party's concerns are met "we intend to be present at Castle Grounds as soon as possible", his appearance as early as this morning is regarded as a possibility.

There is speculation that the use of the phrase "Castle Grounds" rather than "Castle Buildings", where the talks are being held, could mean the Unionist party might decide to go to Stormont while refusing to enter the same building as the republican delegation.

Mr Trimble's conspicuous refusal to be rushed meant that, for once, at least some of the media focus was distracted away from Sinn Fein, though at Stormont itself the main event of the day was the arrival of party president Gerry Adams and his talks team.

He said: "We do think this could be the beginning of the end of conflict on this island." Of the Unionists he said: "If they are not here today they will be here tomorrow, or the day after or the day after - and the sooner the better for everyone."

This was just one item on a hectic political schedule aimed primarily at easing the Unionists' path to the table. The chief element was a joint statement from Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. This both emphasised the principle of consent and affirmed that the two governments saw the resolution of the arms decommissioning issue as an indispensable part of the process of negotiation.

Although the Unionist party would have much preferred the word "mandatory" to "indispensable", it regarded the statement as representing a useful advance on the governments' positions.

Later, Paul Murphy, minister for political development, went to Unionist party headquarters for talks with Mr Trimble and others.

From parties within the talks came criticism of the Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party speaking dismissively of "contrived drama". Monica McWilliams of the Women's Coalition said: "It is boys playing war and I am angry about it. We have one more year to put this thing right and the time is now and today."

Mark Durkan of the SDLP said: "We don't want to make things difficult for David Trimble. If there are things needed to give him and the Ulster Unionists a few more cushions to make them comfortable sitting with Sinn Fein, okay. If however they're looking to change the furniture and the architecture of the place then that's a different matter."

A poignant note was struck by the appearance outside the talks of Rita Restorick, the mother of the last British soldier to be killed by the IRA. Holding a photograph of her 23-year-old son, Stephen, she said: "I want all the parties to take part and try and find a resolution, but both sides will have to make compromises. I felt I had to come for the benefit of the ordinary people and although I'm not overly optimistic, I want these talks to succeed."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Voices
Jimmy Mubenga died after being restrained on an aircraft by G4S escorts
voicesJonathan Cox: Tragedy of Jimmy Mubenga highlights lack of dignity shown to migrants
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum