After almost two years of work, all sides in Northern Ireland's peace talks gathered Monday to hear former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell put forth his compromise plan.
His draft settlement, the result of several patient months of distilling politicians' views, will spell out the most likely ground for compromise between Protestants and Roman Catholics on how Northern Ireland should be governed.Mitchell didn't comment as he arrived Monday.
Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews called for "a vow of silence from the party leaders until Wednesday. It would certainly improve the chances of an agreement."
The British and Irish governments appointed Mitchell - the former Senate majority leader from Maine - chairman of the search for a settlement that started in June 1996.
Deadlocked much of the time by procedural wrangling, the talks picked up speed after the two governments jointly presented a settlement outline in January.
That envisioned Protestants and Catholics governing Northern Ireland together in a new Belfast assembly, and cooperating formally with Ireland for the first time in a cross-border council.
Mitchell's far more difficult task has been to put meat on the bare-boned outline and strike a balance that somehow keeps both the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's major pro-British Protestant party, and the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party on board for an agreement later this week.
His lengthy document needs to define the powers of both the Belfast assembly and the cross-border council.
Protestants insist that power be wielded from within Northern Ireland, a state carved out in 1920 to create a Protestant majority on an otherwise mostly Catholic island agitating for independence from Britain.
The north's growing Catholic minority as stubbornly demands that the cross-border council have powers to enforce policies equally in both parts of Ireland.
Seamus Mallon, deputy leader of the north's biggest Catholic party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, said he expects an agreement on Thursday. He said even hard-line Catholics who back Sinn Fein would support the emerging deal because it "can be expanded in so many ways."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said he expects the Ulster Unionists to "play hardball" and hold "very fixed positions" until "the last hour of the negotiations."
The Ulster Unionists downplayed prospects of agreement.
"We will not be signing up to an agreement which would fundamentally undermine Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom," said one negotiator, Jeffrey Donaldson.
Mitchell wants a conclusion by Thursday, before Ireland starts a four-day Easter holiday full of militant inspiration for Irish Republican Army supporters.
Later this month the IRA's commanders are expected to review whether to extend their July 1997 cease-fire.