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With days to go before the Northern Ireland peace talks come to a formal close, things are, to use the immortal words ofFluther in Sean O'Casey's play, The Plough and Stars, "in a state of chasis."

Months of interminable bickering, the unwillingness of some parties to directly talk with others, a process in which it often appears that the key players spend more time trying to get one another thrown out of the process than with trying to bring those who are outside in, the insidious slide to more volatile sectarianism as armed extremists on both sides take random but deadly aim at ordinary Catholics and Protestants, have done much to dispel the mood of public confidence that a settlement is possible to which all parties to the conflict could subscribe, however begrudgingly, before their mandate runs out in early April.

Not that the British and Irish governments have given up. Au contraire, their zeal --and ingeniousness -- in trying to sort out the unfathomable is a feat of political gymnastics that would put many a good spinmeister on this side of the ocean to shame. Neither is about to throw in the towel. They express, but are careful not to exude optimism; they caution with the usual caveats. But the mood is upbeat. Come May, they vow, there will be referendums, North and South, on proposals regarding the internal governance of Northern Ireland and the nature and extent of the relationship between the two parts of Ireland. Whether they are the product of agreement among the parties themselves or cobbled together by the civil servants who have had to sit through every meretricious twist and turn of the infinitely tedious proceedings, is moot.

The parties themselves are, however, decidedly less upbeat, some, especially the nonspeaking, even pessimistic.



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