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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deadlock Broken, Irish Talks Start Over

BELFAST -- Northern Ireland's peace talks were finally set to get off the ground on Tuesday after political parties made the first breakthrough in four months of wrangling and set a basic agenda.

The first substantive negotiation was to be held later in the day against a background of renewed tension across the British province caused by a week-old IRA guerrilla attack on Britain's army base at Lisburn, south of Belfast.

The talks group all Northern Ireland's pro-British and pro-Irish parties except Sinn Fein, excluded because of the failure of its IRA guerrilla allies to renew a 17-month ceasefire.

This means parties will discuss ways to get guerrilla groups to surrender their weapons while the Irish Republican Army, whose war against British rule lies at the heart of the conflict, is not represented.

Progress was seen to coincide with the increasing isolation of Sinn Fein, whose IRA allies reject any preconditions for talks and refuse to discuss dismantling their arms stockpiles.

But it would enhance the credentials of two small political parties representing the IRA's arch-foes, Loyalist groups who waged a 27-year war of terror against the Catholic community to avenge IRA attacks, delegates said.

Loyalist militia have so far stuck by a two-year-old cease-fire and have not retaliated for last week's IRA bombing of the Lisburn base, the first IRA attack in Northern Ireland itself for two years.

Their spokesmen in the Progressive Unionist Party and Ulster Democratic Party, drawn into the political process for the first time in years, have appealed to the guerrillas not to wreck fragile hopes of peace by avenging the IRA attack.

Delegates said the breakthrough was made possible by agreement between seven out of nine parties on how to tackle the surrender of arms held by guerrilla groups, the issue which has dogged the Anglo-Irish peace process for two years.

But the issue remained theoretical because both the IRA and Loyalist guerrillas have said disarmament can only take place as part of an overall settlement reconciling pro-British Unionist and Irish nationalists.

The parties will discuss how guerrilla groups could carry out so-called decommissioning of their arsenals in stages as the talks progress, an idea first floated by their U.S. chairman, former senator George Mitchell.

The talks have been bogged down since they were launched by Britain and Ireland in June under the chairmanship of Mitchell.

Unionist parties, which want the province to stay British, suspected Mitchell of favoring their Irish nationalist rival, the Social Democratic and Labour Party.