By Anne Cadwallader and Patrick Markey
STORMONT — Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble flew to the United States Tuesday as former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell ended his discussions with Northern Ireland’s political parties saying his review talks were “well advanced” and that he expected his report on the negotiations to be ready shortly after meeting with parties again next Monday.
Trimble’s decision to travel to America at such a delicate time in Northern Ireland’s talks prompted speculation about the timing of his departure and how Mitchell’s statement should be interpreted.
It has been almost 10 weeks since the former U.S. senator began his review in an attempt to break the impasse among Northern Ireland’s political parties over decommissioning and devolution to the power-sharing government envisioned in the Good Friday document.
Although Mitchell had seemed intent on wrapping up his review earlier in October, there is now growing speculation that he may be pushed by the British and Irish governments to pilot what some observers are calling a “soft landing” to avoid crashing the agreement he negotiated in April 1998.
Mitchell’s departure to Dublin Tuesday was being interpreted in Belfast as a worrying sign that no breakthrough in the impasse over decommissioning was on the cards. Several political observers believe that with the bulk his talks with the parties likely over, it is now increasingly possible that Mitchell will draft and present his own proposals to break the deadlock.
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The UUP are still insisting on assurances over a timetable for IRA disarming while Sinn Fein insists that it cannot enter into any guarantees on behalf of the IRA.
In his statement released on Tuesday, Mitchell said: “My meetings with the parties are well-advanced. Consultation with them is the most important, but it is not the only part of the review process.”
Mitchell will meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and President Bill Clinton, and also review the assessment of the independent agency charged with decommissioning, before meeting again with the parties on Monday.
“I will renew my meeting with the parties in Belfast on Monday. I expect to have my report ready shortly thereafter,” Mitchell said in his statement.
Mitchell said he is convinced that Northern Ireland’s parties are sincere and acting in good faith in seeking the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. He said that the parties do desire government devolution and arms decommissioning, but the problem remained the differences among them on how those objectives could be reached.
About three hours before Mitchell’s announcement, Unionist leader Trimble stunned the other parties by announcing he was leaving the talks for five days to fulfill a long-planned engagement in Indiana. He will speak at the University of Indiana on Wednesday.
Trimble will also be in Washington on Thursday and Friday for talks with the National Security Council.
There was speculation in Belfast that the UUP leader is also angling for a meeting with President Clinton during his visit. Trimble will return to London on Saturday.
Responding to Mitchell’s announcement, the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said that if a deal is not done now over decommissioning, then he could not see how the current party leaderships could succeed in the short term.
Adams said decommissioning was a voluntary process, so the conditions had to be created in which it could take place. These could only be strengthened by the setting up of the institutions proposed in the agreement, he said.
The Sinn Fein leader said that although relations had improved, there was no meeting on minds on the main issue. The loyalist and republican cease-fires were being devalued by the time it was taking to put the agreement into effect, he said.
Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist Party said he understands that the public is skeptical and this is justified, but he asked people to be patient. He particularly welcomed Mitchell’s decision to ask the international body on decommissioning for its assessment.
The SDLP leader, John Hume, arrived at the talks complex on Monday in his first appearance since his recent serious illness. Hume is due to address his party conference at the weekend.