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Friday, 8 November, 2002, 21:28 GMT
Plotting the Agreement review
NI Secretary Paul Murphy and Irish Foreign Affairs minister Brian Cowen
Paul Murphy and Brian Cowen have met the parties

The Dublin-Belfast road has been a busy one this week.

First down the road, the SDLP, followed swiftly by the Secretary of State, Paul Murphy.

All were there to see the Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, who came to Belfast to meet the political parties, including Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

But besides wear and tear on the roads, what's been achieved? When will the real talks start? And when they do is there any hope of restoring devolution?

That goal seemed further away than ever when a civil servant was arrested on suspicion of spying.

Martin McGuiness Sinn Fein
Martin McGuiness: "We can crack this nut"

Damaging unionist confidence in the process, said the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.

The suspect has since been released without charge.

Will this bolster unionist confidence? Unlikely. Mr Trimble says he'll only be satisfied when the IRA moves to completion -in other words the IRA gives up violence for good, and settles down to some Irish form of the Royal British Legion, honouring their war dead.

The prime minister hasn't specifically called for disbandment - but has coyly suggested we know what he means when he calls for acts of completion.

But do Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and P O'Neill know?

On BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme, Mr McGuinness was asked what he believes Mr Blair expects. He too was coy.

'Big steps'

But he certainly seemed optimistic that progress could be made - if not before Christmas - then by next March.

He spoke of cracking the nut, and moving mountains.

He told the programme: "We will be approaching talks in a spirit of positive and constructive frame of mind, and hope everybody else will bring the same approach to it.

"And if we do that I think there's a possibility even a probability that we can crack this nut."

Although he was short on detail, the language and tone of his interview is significant. It suggests republicans are up for a deal, that they want urgent moves and are prepared for compromises - if "big steps" are reciprocated.

Mr McGuinness' language is in stark contrast to previous interviews in the early days of decommissioning demands when he warned of grave errors and the Agreement trundling (yet again) towards destruction.

While republicans mull over their next step, large or small, unionists are watching nervously.

Peter Robinson: Deputy leader DUP
Peter Robinson: "A fundamental change in the structures of government is needed"

Will the price be too high? What will the outcome of negotiations be?

The Ulster Unionist David Trimble refused to spell out specifically what he required from republicans as the price of power-sharing.

He speaks of acts of completion and "knowing it when he sees it". Clearly however, policing will be a key element of the deal. More on that is expected shortly when the government unveils legislation.

In the meantime, with devolution moving towards its first month anniversary, Gerry Adams has likened Stormont to a wet Sunday in Belfast.

And with assembly members's salaries cut by a third, he headed to America with a begging bowl.

Fundraising was mixed with serious political discussions in Washington with Richard Haass, the US envoy on Northern Ireland.


Ambassador Haass is due in the province for talks later this month.

British and Irish officials are also plotting the terms of a forthcoming review of the Good Friday Agreement's implementation.

And details should be announced in the next week or so.

As for the DUP, the party leader is saying he won't be attending the review, but will continue to have talks with the government.

The DUP deputy leader, Peter Robinson, on Inside Politics, hinted that his party may not return to their ministerial posts if devolution is patched up rather than altered fundamentally.

"I think we've reached the stage where there's a requirement to have a fundamental change in the structures of government.

And really to go back in circumstances where you are simply tinkering with or trifling with the present form of devolution is not to the advantage of the people of Northern Ireland."

The party says it wants an election followed by negotiations. But it's believed that if there is a deal done in the short term the party would return to the Assembly but not necessarily to Executive office.

If there's no deal before the May elections, and there's an attempt to restore devolution without an election after that point, it may be a safe bet the DUP will remain outside Stormont, protesting at "bogus" structures.

The question is what will the DUP do if there is a deal and David Trimble manages to sell it followed by a short period of devolution before elections?

How will that affect the DUP's electoral prospects. The DUP appears unconcerned - and one can expect a bullish conference later this month.

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See also:

01 Nov 02 | N Ireland
31 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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30 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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28 Oct 02 | N Ireland
26 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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