Ulster on the verge of new agreement

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN IRELAND parties appeared to be on the point of a substantial breakthrough on new administrative structures last night after a day of talks at Stormont.

Just before midnight sources said they believed agreement was close on how many departments a new Northern Ireland government should have, and on new crossborder bodies. Although an element of caution remained, given that the talks broke down two weeks ago when agreement seemed imminent, most participants said they believed an accord was not far off. Such a breakthrough will come as a relief to most of those involved and to the British and Irish governments, which had feared failure to find agreement before the Christmas recess would create a political vacuum which might be filled by violence.

The parties seemed to be moving towards the idea of setting up 10 government departments, as well as six crossborder bodies to co-ordinate policies with the government of the Irish Republic.

Agreement on these points, though welcome, will still leave unresolved the question of arms decommissioning, where the impasse between David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein remains as difficult as ever. Talks have been going on at Stormont all week, with Mr Trimble and his deputy-designate, Seamus Mallon, of the nationalist SDLP, acting as key figures in the search for agreement. A deadline of sorts had been imposed by the fact that Mr Mallon is today due to enter hospital for a routine operation.

Mr Trimble last night met the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, for talks described as "both open and frank," while both Tony Blair and the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, were in telephone contact with a number of the parties. Earlier Mr Mallon said failure to reach a deal before the end of the week would have serious consequences. "We all know if this straggles on to the end of January then it is going to make things much more difficult."