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Negotiators Struggle to Meet Deadline for Ulster Settlement

By T.R. Reid
The Washington Post

Negotiators hoping to reach a historic settlement to the Northern Ireland conflict struggled Monday to work out the fine points of a multiparty agreement by Thursday's deadline.

George J. Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate majority leader who chairs the 21-month-old talks at Stormont Castle outside Belfast, has set Thursday as the last day to reach a settlement. A key participant in the talks, John Alderdice of the mainly Protestant Alliance Party, said Monday that agreement has been reached on about 80 percent of the issues at stake.

But continuing debate on a few points-some small, some quite important-delayed progress. Mitchell had hoped to present a draft settlement document Monday to all the parties at the talks, but as midnight approached he was still struggling with the terms.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair was reported to be ready to travel to Belfast Wednesday to be part of final steps toward agreement. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern may not be able to attend because his mother is to be buried Wednesday.

Mitchell, the chairman of the talks, has to balance the concerns of 10 parties in Northern Ireland, plus the views of the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland, a British-ruled province of 1.6 million people, has been wracked for three decades by hatred and violence in one of the most intractable civil wars on Earth. More than 3,200 people have been killed in the conflict. The dispute is not concerned with religious beliefs, but the warring factions break down roughly along sectarian lines. The Protestant majority in the province wants it to remain part of Britain. The Catholics, representing about 45 percent of the population, largely support unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

Just the fact that Protestant and Catholic parties - including the political arms of some of the province's sectarian terrorist bands - are sitting around a table and talking is considered a major step forward. An agreement this week would be a historic milestone. A failure might prompt further talks, but could also trigger new outbursts of fighting and bombing in the cities of Northern Ireland.

The broad terms of Mitchell's settlement document are already known: The two battling sides will agree to a permanent cease-fire; Northern Ireland will remain a part of Britain; "cross-border" government bodies will be created to increase political and economic ties between the province and the Irish Republic.

One of the key problems still unresolved Monday night involved rewriting the Irish constitution. That document says the entire island is a single country, a declaration that is dear to advocates of unification in both Northern Ireland and the republic. It is broadly agreed that this wording will have to be changed as part of an overall agreement, but the matter is delicate.