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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 21:19 GMT
Reconciling the political wish lists
Bertie Ahern seems to have confirmed what everyone knew: there would be no "breakthroughs" at the first day of multi-party talks.
Yet the taoiseach has held out the possibility of future drama before Christmas and expressed the hope that the outstanding issues might be resolved by Feburary.
With just weeks until Christmas, the parties are each set to arrive at Stormont with their wish-lists.
But festive cheer is unlikely to be the mood in the member's dining room where the talks are to kick off.
Secretary of State Paul Murphy and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen are playing host to guests who are having trouble getting along at the moment.
Even so, the pro-Agreement guests are lining up to attend.
These include the Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Alliance, Women's Coalition and Progressive Unionists.
The DUP, and a smattering of anti-agreement politicians are staying away - hoping to spoil the party, so to speak.
Each party is entitled to send two delegates and a notetaker. One notable absentee will be the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, who has delegated Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey to go in his stead.
A source close to the leader said the problem arose because the talks were moved forward a week to accommodate the Irish foreign minister.
He said Mr Trimble had agreed to present the Spectator's Parliamentarian of the Year award, and that he felt unable to pull out as he had won last year and had been unable to attend.
Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, and Mr Trimble's former partner in government, suggested the parties would just have to get along without the UUP leader.
Speaking ahead of talks, Sir Reg Empey has spelled out in great details what's required.
When asked if it was disbandment of the IRA his party was seeking, the former minister said others could use whatever words they wanted.
But he made his position clear: "Fundamentally we need to know that paramilitary activity is no longer occuring. That's number one.
"Number two is the question of capability to wage war. There's the importation of weapons.
"There's the gathering of intelligence. All of these things - beatings, and expulsion and exiling people - are breaches of the Mitchell Principles.
"They were all supposed to have ended. They haven't ended. So they will have to end."
He has gone slightly further than Mr Trimble who in the past has been reluctant to be prescriptive - suggesting only that he would "know " what was required when he saw it.
For his part, the Sinn Fein leader has insisted it's not possible for the IRA to disband at the behest of unionists or the British Government.
But of course, that doesn't mean that a dramatic move from republicans is impossible - if it is done on republicans terms.
In other words, Sinn Fein's concerns on policing, demilitarisation and equality, etc must be met.
There's speculation that the taoiseach's hints of progress before Christmas relate to policing and Sinn Fein's attitude to it. The legislation is due to be published shortly.
A key demand of republicans will be the inclusion of former republican prisoners on district partnership boards.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP are agreed that there can be no single item agenda.
The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, says confidence is a two way street. One of his key aims is to ensure the devolution of policing and justice.
"We need to round up all outstanding matters," he told the BBC.
But reaching a conclusion without the DUP does make success much more difficult. Selling the deal is as crucial as actually achieving it.
The DUP has, with help from republicans and a number of Ulster Unionists, succeeded in eroding unionist confidence in the Agreement.
And it's believed that a common theme of the talks with Richard Haass over the past few days has been concerns over unionist intentions.
In other words, even if "all the ducks were lined up in a row" the question remains whether the UUP will be able or willing to return to power-sharing? Can unionist confidence be rebuilt?
Sir Reg Empey said enormous possibilies open up if republicans commit themselves to exclusively peaceful means.
But the DUP's Ian Paisley Jr said the talks and the Agreement are doomed.
"The reality is without the DUP, the process is going nowhere. For a deal to stick the DUP has to be there," he said.
The DUP says it won't be there without an election first.
Whether he's right or not is unproven. But there is a recognition that the Agreement can't work without a majority of unionists and nationalists backing it.
If a deal does emerge in the weeks and months ahead, it seems certain there could be an almighty battle for the soul of unionism.
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