Ulster: the road to peace : Deadlines on negotiations

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The Independent Online
The timetable for peace in Northern Ireland was set by the Irish and British governments in their joint statement on 25 June, this year.

The first deadline it set was that the business of the opening plenary, under former United States senator George Mitchell, including the launch of the three-stranded negotiations should be completed "not later than the end of July".

The parties agreed to meet on Wednesday this week and to adjourn again for the summer holidays until 15 September - the first meeting of the "substantive talks" to which Sinn Fein will be invited, following the restoration of the IRA ceasefire. To gain seats at the negotiating table, Sinn Fein will have to sign up to the Mitchell principles, which Tony Blair said on 25 June included "not only the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations and the renunciation of force or the threat of force but also action to prevent so-called punishment killings and beatings".

The Government may seek to hold more meetings if Wednesday's meeting leads to a crisis in the talks, with the Unionists voting down the Government's proposals for decommissioning terrorist weapons.

To reassure the Unionists, the chairman of the decommissioning body will be announced by the end of July. He is expected to be John de Chastelain, the former chief of the Canadian defence forces. The members of the body will be appointed in August, to start work in September before the first substantive cross-party talks. Their aim is to have decommissioning plans ready to begin in parallel with the talks.

The key deadline is May 1998 - the month set by the two governments for ending the substantive talks and for putting the proposals on the future of Northern Ireland to the people in referendums, north and south.

But the timetable is littered with obstacles. The Unionists, if they agree to join the talks with Sinn Fein, want an early start to the decommissioning of weapons, with arms being handed over during the talks process.

Colin Brown