Unionists challenge Mitchell role in talks

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The Independent Online
The British and Irish prime ministers will today launch historic peace talks with most of the Northern Ireland political parties but will face an immediate challenge from the Unionists and protests from Sinn Fein, which has been excluded.

The start of the talks in Belfast will be overshadowed by the absence of an IRA ceasefire, which means Sinn Fein will not be at the table, and by rumblings of a Unionist challenge to the appointment of the former American senator, George Mitchell, as overall chairman.

Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, and his supporters are expected to stage a symbolic attempt to gain entry to the talks at Stormont in east Belfast, arguing that the 116,000 votes the party won in the recent election entitles it to places at the table.

The two governments have mapped out a plan which begins with short speeches by John Major and the Taoiseach, John Bruton, followed by discussions on a proposed agenda and by consideration of the issue of arms decommissioning. But the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and other Unionists are to challenge the choice of Mr Mitchell, describing him as "a Catholic Irish-American from the same stable as the Kennedys". Last night it was not clear whether the Ulster Unionists would add their voices to these objections, though the deputy leader, John Taylor, said: "This appointment is the equivalent of an American Serb presiding over talks on the future of Croatia."

Over the weekend the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, met Mr Paisley and Robert McCartney, of the UK Unionist Party, to work out a common Unionist approach in the talks. A concerted Unionist rejection of Mr Mitchell would clearly make it difficult for him to continue as chairman of the talks, and would represent a setback for those hoping for early progress in the discussions.

The weekend brought many calls for a renewed IRA ceasefire, with appeals coming from Mr Bruton and the Catholic Primate of all Ireland, Dr Cahal Daly, who called for prayers for peace to be said at all masses.

The former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, hoped for an early truce. Speaking after meeting Mr Adams, he said: "I am now satisfied that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein will seek an early reinstatement of the ceasefire."

A telling indication of public opinion in Northern Ireland was given in a poll suggesting 97 per cent of people wanted another IRA ceasefire, and that this included 84 per cent of those who supported Sinn Fein.

Mr Mitchell's suitability as chairman was defended by both the British and Irish governments and by other nationalists. Mr Major said: "Who better to be certain that the Mitchell report is kept than the author, and he is there as chairman of the plenary?"

The former senator was also supported by the Irish minister for foreign affairs, Dick Spring, who said he had difficulty understanding why anyone who wanted to see progress made in Northern Ireland objected a man who had shown "his capacity, his impartiality and his independence".

Mr Spring was attacked by Mr Trimble who said he was acting "more like an emissary of Sinn Fein-IRA" than as the representative of the Dublin government.

Michael Ancram, the Northern Ireland minister for political development, commended Mr Mitchell's impartiality and called on the IRA to declare a ceasefire, adding: "I hope they don't turn their back on that opportunity. If they do, I have to say they will be spitting in the faces of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland who want to see this process work."

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