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Northern Ireland's political parties could wrap up a settlement on the province's future by the end of the year, if they have the will, a senior British official said Sunday.

The eight parties still in the talks -- including the political allies of the main militant groups -- worked today on an agenda. For the first time, pro-British unionists and supporters of the Irish Republican Army were thrown together to actually make agreements.

The aim of the talks is to develop arrangements for governing Northern Ireland that would satisfy the pro-British, Protestant majority and the Catholic minority, whose two main parties advocate union with Ireland to the south and an end to British rule.

"We could do it by Christmas if people really wanted to do it, if there was determination and we could build that trust and confidence quick enough, which is the problem -- getting people to trust each other and talk," Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam said Sunday on British Broadcasting Corp. television.

The key breakthrough last week was the decision by the Ulster Unionist Party, the largest party in Northern Ireland, to stay in the negotiations.

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