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Britain and Ireland Ask Former U.S. Senator to Chair Revived Peace Talks

By William D. Montalbano
Los Angeles Times

Britain and Ireland played an American card in their tortuous search for peace in Northern Ireland on Thursday, asking former Maine Sen. George Mitchell to chair long-shot talks aimed at ending the sectarian strife.

The choice of Mitchell angered some in both Britain and Ireland, for whom the specter of a foreigner involved in delicate matters of state is demeaning. Moreover, hard-line Protestants are leery of Mitchell. They want the province to remain part of the United Kingdom and say Mitchell is too close to Catholic nationalists seeking closer links with Ireland.

And Mitchell's task is daunting: Multi-party talks in Belfast will likely begin next Monday without Sinn Fein, the political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.

Analysts say the talks are dramatically weakened without Sinn Fein. And peace is not a possibility if the IRA refuses a cease-fire.

Mitchell, who nudged baleful enemies toward the table in January with a compromise proposal on weapons surrender that led to the upcoming talks, will be overall chairman and preside at plenary sessions.

But he will simultaneously head a commission meeting parallel to the main sessions to negotiate the surrender of arsenals by Catholic and Protestant extremists, whose war of assassination and bombing has claimed 3,200 lives since 1969.

Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring and Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, announced Mitchell's appointment at a joint news conference in London.

"I believe this represents the best basis we can offer for meaningful, comprehensive and inclusive negotiations," said Spring. Mayhew called it "an historic turning point for the better" in Northern Ireland.

Mayhew said Mitchell "can clearly bring to bear a special insight and authority to take these issues forward."

The White House weighed in supportively after President Clinton spoke by telephone with Irish leader John Bruton and Britain Prime Minister John Major. Clinton said the talks offer "a real chance to set aside the past and negotiate a future of hope and promise, justice and peace."