By Anne Cadwallader and Patrick Markey
BELFAST — U.S. Senator George Mitchell’s effort to save the Good Friday Agreement entered its crucial stages this week as both sides trying to break the government-and-guns impasse moved their negotiations to London.
Under tightly controlled media restrictions, Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists have said little about whether the negotiations could lead to a breakdown or a possible breakthrough.
But signals from Northern Ireland and Dublin suggest that Mitchell is keen to wrap up his review by the end of this week, and that while there appears to be little movement, the parties have been involved in more positive engagement than for some time.
"The atmospherics have been better and they have been involved in full and direct engagement in a way that hasn’t happened for a while," said one Northern Ireland party source.
"The question is where is the substance?" the source said.
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After further talks on Wednesday morning, Unionist leader David Trimble will head to the House of Commons for question time and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams flies out to New York for a fund-raising dinner. While it was uncertain whether Mitchell would extend his review into next week, the talks will likely resume on Friday after all negotiators have consulted with their parties.
Britain’s new Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson said there was no alternative to the Good Friday agreement, which he called "the only show in town,"
Speaking in Dublin where he was meeting with Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews, Mandelson said that a political solution remained within grasp, but it would require some "give and take from everyone."
The focus now lies on Mitchell and whether the former senator can bring the two parties together during the closed door sessions this week.
Although it is unclear what formula Mitchell may put on the table, it’s likely to be similar to last July’s "The Way Forward" document, which foresaw the formation of an inclusive Executive to govern Northern Ireland in return for Sinn Féin assurances on IRA decommissioning.
In a rare statement on the progress of the talks, Mitchell himself said if more time were needed to get a deal, then everybody should be patient. He said the review was entering a "crucial phase" and appealed for the London sessions to be kept private.
"It remains my firm belief that this review can succeed. I would not continue to facilitate this process if I felt I was wasting my time. What is required now is the commitment of all of the pro-Agreement parties to find a way through the current difficulties," he said.
But a proposition similar to the Way Forward document still presents hurdles for both parties.
It would be very difficult for Sinn Féin to agree because of the IRA’s tough line against decommissioning. Trimble would almost certainly also find himself under severe attack from within his own party.
In a show of some flexibility on Sunday, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said his party "would not be dogmatic . . . if there was some way of meeting the Ulster Unionist Party’s demands."
But he went on to say: "The reality is that the UUP’s position is not do-able and their project is not helped by their rejection over the last year and a half of a series of efforts by us to resolve this matter on their terms."
Adams acknowledged that republicans had inflicted suffering on unionists and that both sides were losing confidence. He accepted that his party would have to address unionist concerns "in a spirit of respect and goodwill."
Adams’ comments were described on Monday as "insubstantial" by Trimble, who said there was nothing particularly new in them and that he remained "unenthusiastic" about them.
During the renewed talks on Monday, a group of six anti-Agreement UUP MPs and the former party leader, Lord Molyneaux, issued a statement warning Mitchell that they will resist any attempt to force them to back down "in the strongest possible terms."
"We will not countenance the representatives of fully armed and violent terrorist organizations being placed in our government under any circumstances without an end to their violence, the decommissioning of their illegal weaponry and the progressive dismantling of their paramilitary structures," Molyneaux said.
The deputy leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, warned that faith in the process has diminished and it would become increasingly difficult to restore if progress was not made soon.
Sinn Féin chairman Mitchell McLaughlin said that his party would do their best during the remaining days, but it was hard to be optimistic about the review. McLaughlin said it was clear that, if the Ulster Unionists did not move away from what he said were their unachievable demands there was little likelihood of success.
Sinn Féin Chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said at the end of last week’s talks that the substantial issues have not been resolved. McGuinness said that the meetings in London had been better than those in previous months, but added that time is running out.