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Tuesday, November 16, 1999 Published at 20:01 GMT


UK: Northern Ireland

Promising climate for peace

The pro-agreement parties are moving closer to power

By BBC Ireland correspondent Tom Coulter

The Northern Ireland political process now appears to have a momentum and common purpose that may eventually result in a lasting peace settlement.


[ image: Time to leave violence behind?]
Time to leave violence behind?
Most observers of this tortured process will, however, remain cautious.

From the outset, attempts to reconcile unionist, nationalist and republican aspirations have been bedevilled by suspicion and intolerance.

Now, it seems, the political climate is changing.

Credit for that must go to the former American Senator, George Mitchell, who returned to Belfast in September to try to break the talks deadlock that had paralysed the implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

In ten weeks, he managed to sow and nurture a growing trust between unionists and republicans and persuade them to agree a way forward.

That strategy sets out a number of confidence- building measures, which, when taken as a whole, should lead to a new peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

Already there have been conciliatory statements from Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, but what will the next few days and weeks bring?

IRA statement

An IRA statement is expected on Wednesday, which it is thought will express confidence in the Sinn Fein leadership, and a commitment to the objective of a permanent peace.

It's also likely to announce that the organisation will appoint a person to liaise with the international decommissioning body, chaired by the Canadian General, John de Chastelain.

That will be a major development in the eyes of unionists.

On Thursday, it is expected that former Senator George Mitchell will publish his final report on the ten week review process in which he is likely to give his assessment of the state of the peace agreement.

The senator is then likely to pass on the stewardship of the process to the British and Irish governments, and return to his wife and young son in America.

The next and probably most critical moment for the peace deal will come on Saturday the 27th of November.

Sharing power

The Ulster Unionist council meets on that date. It is the party's governing body, and if the 900 strong group fails to support David Trimble's strategy then everything could collapse and Mr Trimble would probably no longer be party leader.

If, however, the agreement remains on track, a power-sharing executive should be formed by the first week of December. It would include two Sinn Fein ministers.

A quiet Christmas period would probably follow. January 2000 will also he critical.

Early in the month the head of the international decommissioning body is expected to issue a report, saying the methods of decommissioning had been agreed with the various paramilitary groups including the IRA.

These carefully choreographed events, it appears, have been agreed by all the main players in the process. Its the next stage where opinions appear to differ.

By the end of January, Ulster Unionists expect decommissioning to have started - Sinn Fein and republicans are not prepared to give any time-scale.

In a process fraught with difficulty, this could be the defining moment when either success or failure is guaranteed.



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