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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 13:11 GMT

UK: Northern Ireland

NI peace deal edges closer

George Mitchell: "Close to breaking impasse"

The Northern Ireland peace process is agonisingly close to a major breakthrough, the chairman of the review process has insisted.

Click here to watch Senator Mitchell's statement in full
Former US senator George Mitchell issued a significant statement at lunchtime on Monday stressing his confidence all sides are determined to break the impasse and his confidence this can occur.

His remarks are being seen as the first move in a series of events planned for the next few days, which could bring the much-sought breakthrough.

"In the course of the review the parties have engaged with one another in an unprecedented manner," Mr Mitchell said.

[ image:  ]
It had become "common ground" on all sides that decommissioning - long the critical issue stalling the process - had to be achieved as quickly as possible, he said.

To encourage this, the report being prepared by the international commission on decommissioning would be made public.

In a brief statement later on Monday, as the report was being distributed to the parties, the chairman of the commission, General John de Chastelain, said only: "We do not intend to make any public statements about our assessment. We have a job to do and we are getting on with it."

Mr Mitchell also said that all the parties in the peace process would also be required to state their position publicly.

"I believe that the parties now understand each other's concerns and requirements far better than before and are committed to resolving the current impasse," he said.

The Search for Peace
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George Mitchell Profile
Link to Sinn Fein
Link to UUP
Link to Decommissioning
"I am increasingly confident that a way will be found to do so."

The SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party immediately welcomed Mr Mitchell's statement.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said he shared Mr Mitchell's "increasing confidence that the review process has the potential to achieve a resolution of the current impasse in the peace process".

But Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble played down hopes of an imminent breakthrough.

"Let's wait and see what the package is, if there is a package, but we must not run ahead of ourselves," he said.

"It ain't over till it is over."

One-off opportunity - Blair

Earlier, Tony Blair expressed his hope of a deal in the Northern Ireland peace process to allow devolution in the province to succeed.

After a months of delays caused by arguments over decommissioning, speculation exists that the IRA might be ready to begin getting rid of at least some of its arms on a voluntary basis if a deal is struck.

[ image: Tony Blair: Message of hope from South Africa]
Tony Blair: Message of hope from South Africa
But this had remained unacceptable to some key unionists - including Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor - because the proposed fix requires them to sit in government with Sinn Fein before the decommissioning process begins.

The UK prime minister, speaking to the BBC from the Commonwealth meeting in South Africa, played down speculation over an imminent breakthrough but urged the key players to take risks for the future.

"We haven't failed at all yet and I hope we never do," Mr Blair said. "Let us just hope in the next few days that the leadership of David Trimble and people like that, who have shown incredible courage in the last few years, will continue."

He promised the UK Government would do everything it could to help, although the ultimate decisions had to be made by the politicians and people of Northern Ireland.

Tony Blair: "We have come an enormous way in the last two years"
"But we have got a one-off opportunity as we enter this new millennium for Northern Ireland finally to gain the type of peace and mutual respect in communities that we take for granted elsewhere in the United Kingdom," the prime minister said.

"The one thing I am convinced of and I think Senator Mitchell has come to the same conclusion is that people in the main parties really do want to make it work."

Guns weeks after government

The BBC's Denis Murray: "It's the first step in a sequence of steps"
Informed sources say the peace plan before the unionists promises statements by the IRA and Sinn Fein including a commitment in principle to decommissioning with the expectation that a weapons handover would follow within weeks.

This would in turn allow the mechanisms of devolution, principally the executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to be set up.

Should decommissioning fail to take place soon afterwards, unionists would expect the deal to collapse - a scenario that would leave Mr Trimble in a potentially impossible position.

In return for taking that risk, unionists would have the expectation of IRA disarmament within days of the new year starting, if they back the current deal on the table.

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