Ex-Senator Barely Hangs Onto Helm Of N. Ireland Talks

Former Sen. George Mitchell is proving he has the hide of a rhinoceros. Also he is learning that, amid the name-calling and acrimony of Northern Ireland politics, he will need it in quadruple thickness.

The man chosen by the British and Irish governments to chair the special peace forum on Northern Ireland's future learned shortly after midnight yesterday that he would be allowed to perform that job - but only on trial, for one week.

The 110-member forum is scheduled to meet under Senator Mitchell's chairmanship for its first full negotiating session tomorrow. The preliminary talks on Monday and Tuesday focused on setting up the session - and that boiled down to the chairmanship.

During the torrid exchanges, Mitchell was not even admitted to the conference chamber. Instead, he listened on a loudspeaker in an anteroom as leaders of Northern Ireland's unionist parties, which want to maintain Northern Ireland's union with Britain, refused to endorse his chairmanship.

Many Americans who are active in Northern Irish politics favor independence for Northern Ireland. Because Mitchell has Irish ancestry, unionists suspected the former Senate majority leader and veteran Democrat from Maine of bias toward the nationalist cause.

John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said at one point that having Mitchell as chairman was "like having an American Serb chair the Bosnia peace talks," according to a Dublin official who attended the session.

The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the smaller, more radical Democratic Unionist Party, reportedly called Mitchell "a foreigner foisted on us by London, Dublin, and President Clinton."

After leaving the Senate in 1994, Mitchell was appointed Mr. Clinton's special economic adviser on Northern Ireland, and late last year Britain and Ireland asked him to lead a three-man panel charged with finding ways to disarm the region's paramilitary groups.

Inside the conference chamber, even the compromise proposed by London and Dublin officials - putting Mitchell "on probation" for a week while the participants decided whether or not they liked him - failed to satisfy Mr. Paisley and his supporters.

Mitchell made a brief statement promising to chair the talks in "a totally fair and impartial manner," adding that "we have no interest, no interest whatever, other than to make possible a promising future for Northern Ireland."

Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, seized on the late-night breakthrough as a sign of hope.

"This is an extremely important turning point for all who live in Northern Ireland," he said.

Whether that will turn out to be true appears to depend on the next seven days, during which Mitchell will be getting down to work.

In such an atmosphere, Mitchell will need more than the hide of a rhino. It looks as though the patience of Job will also be required.

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