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Saturday, November 6, 1999 Published at 17:35 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

NI peace 'never closer'

John Hume: "Review will result in agreement"

The leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has said that politicians have never been closer to a successful conclusion of Northern Ireland's peace process.

BBC NI Political Editor Stephen Grimason reports from the conference
John Hume was warmly welcomed by delegates at the party's annual conference on Saturday, where he made his first major speech following his recent illness.

He predicted the ongoing review of the Good Friday Agreement would succeed in breaking the impasse over the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the devolution of power.

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"We have never been closer to success than we now are," the Foyle MP, who is celebrating 20 years as SDLP leader, told the conference in Belfast.

He paid tribute to the role of the SDLP in promoting a peaceful resolution of Northern Ireland's 30-year conflict.

"We have been at the forefront in seeking a resolution of our long conflict," he said.

He said the current stalemate was "deeply frustrating", but added: "I believe the review will result in agreement on how to proceed."

But he also said the issue of paramilitary disarmament had been given far too much significance in the present dispute between unionists and republicans.

"Future historians will ask themselves how on earth this matter came to so dominate a political agenda," he said.

"What really matters in practical terms is whether violence has actually ended and it has."

However, he admitted it was also a matter of trust and for that reason, the developing relationship between the two sides at the Mitchell review was "deeply important".

Patience urged by Mandelson

His prediction of a successful outcome to the review was endorsed by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson, who also spoke at the conference.

Mr Mandelson urged people to be patient as they waited for former US Senator George Mitchell's report on his nine-week review of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement.

[ image: Peter Mandelson:
Peter Mandelson: "A crucial point in Northern Ireland's history"
"These talks might, just might, bring the compromise that secures a peaceful, democratic future for generations to come," he said.

"This is a crucial point in Northern Ireland's history. A few more days is a small price to pay. So give the politicians time. They know what is at stake."

It was the first time a serving NI Secretary had addressed an SDLP annual conference.

The former US Senator, George Mitchell, has consulted with President Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, and is due to report soon on his nine-week review of the Belfast accord.

But the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein have so far failed to reach a deal on decommissioning and devolution and it is not clear what Senator Mitchell's report will contain.

Earlier, in an interview broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster, Mr Hume rejected suggestions that the SDLP had been sidelined by the continuing focus on the ongoing impasse between Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionists.

On Friday, the SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon urged Sinn Fein to seize the chance for peace.

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