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Tuesday, 17 August, 1999, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Putting the peace process back on track
Senator Mitchell (centre) helped broker the Good Friday Agreement
Senator Mitchell (centre) helped broker the Good Friday Agreement
BBC Northern Ireland's Political Correspondent, Mark Simpson, looks ahead to the forthcoming review of the Good Friday Agreement, which is being facilitated by former talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell.

George Mitchell's return to the political fray in Northern Ireland is a clear sign that the peace process is in trouble.

The Search for Peace
When the long serving talks chairman left Stormont on Good Friday last year, he returned to New York on a one way ticket, hoping and praying he would never be called back.

Much as he grew to like the province's politicians, he knew the best thing that could happen would be that he never saw them again.

He was well aware that turning the theory of the Agreement into practice would be extremely difficult.

Tony Blair
Blair faces delicate negotiations
That is why when prime ministers and presidents went into overdrive on Good Friday, George Mitchell was the one man who added a note of caution.

He said that implementing the Agreement would be as hard, if not harder, than achieving the Agreement in the first place.

And so it has proved. The review is an admission that the Agreement is floundering.

Overseeing the process

George Mitchell will return to Stormont on Monday 6 September to oversee the process.

It is not clear exactly what format it will take, but the parameters have been firmly put in place. It is a review of the implementation of the Agreement, not a review of the Agreement itself.

It may be a new initiative, but it is likely to focus on a very old problem - the gap in trust between unionists and republicans.

Unionists continue to argue that IRA decommissioning is the key to the resolution of the difficulty, whilst republicans continue to argue that setting up an executive with no preconditions, is the answer.

Mitchell
Senator Mitchell has been called to oversee the review
Now it is over to George Mitchell to see if he can succeed, where the British and Irish Governments have failed, in finding a compromise formula. Few envy his task.

As if his job was not complicated enough, next month also sees the publication of Chris Patten's report on the future of policing in Northern Ireland.

Are unionists or republicans likely to do any serious bargaining until they know what the future holds for the RUC?

Review conclusion

That is very unlikely, and means it could be October at the earliest, before the review is concluded.

Sinn Fein are sceptical about the review and its chances of success.

The party is even considering refusing to participate in it.

But Sinn Fein themselves have been put under pressure, by claims that the IRA was responsible for the recent murder of Belfast man Charles Bennett.

Speculation linking the IRA to an alleged plot to smuggle guns from America has added to that pressure.

Ceasefire 'intact'

The IRA has insisted that its two-year-old ceasefire is intact, but unionists are not convinced. It is yet another example of the mutual mistrust which exists.

Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has not given up on his dream of an all-party powersharing executive at Stormont.

Mo Mowlam
Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam fought hard to stay in her post
Mo Mowlam obviously believes this is still possible, otherwise she would not have fought so hard to stay as Secretary of State.

So while the odds seem to be against the review being successful, no-one is ruling out a last-minute breakthrough. The question is, however, when is the last minute?

Unlike all previous attempts to break the deadlock, there is no deadline.

George Mitchell has resisted the temptation to set an end date.

But all the parties know the talks cannot go on forever, and that, this time, the stakes could not be higher.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
The BBC's Denis Murray: "It's hard, but not hardline"
Video
The BBC's David Eades: "The IRA statement will come as no surprise"
Video
The BBC's Denis Murray: "Tone of the statement is of an undefeated army"
See also:

20 Jul 99 | UK Politics
21 Jul 99 | UK Politics
21 Jul 99 | Talking Point
21 Jul 99 | UK Politics
22 Jul 99 | UK Politics

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