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Friday, 5 July, 2002, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Search for brighter political skies

This summer has been so wet in Northern Ireland that local radio shows have been discussing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

That is jargon, apparently, for the sense of depression which overcomes people when they peer up into the July sky and see nothing but clouds.

There is no doubt that SAD was the prevailing mood amongst most journalists gathered outside Hillsborough Castle for the latest talks hosted by the British and Irish prime ministers.

The rain beat down on our umbrellas as the politicians drove past us into the warmth of the Northern Ireland's secretary's official residence.

Hillsborough Castle: Talks venue
Hillsborough Castle: Talks venue

A small group of loyalist protestors did their best to make their mark, one wearing a Tony Blair mask, others greeting the pro-Agreement leaders with a crescendo of noise from their air horns.

But it was for nothing - dampness conquered all.

By the end of the day, the sodden nature of our clothes was matched by a mushy edge to our understanding.

The government had agreed to come up with something by the time the Westminster parliamentary term ends - 24 July. But exactly what?

Unionists had warned that if there was not appropriate action by the end of the month the process would face a serious problem. But what did that mean?

Contacts

The talks dealt with short term and medium term goals. The short term aim is to have a peaceful summer.

Like motherhood and apple pie, this is something which all the politicians could agree on.

The government is hopeful that a series of private contacts between the players will help to keep the lid on the marching season.

However, the medium term aim is far more difficult.

This involves pushing the paramilitaries further along their transition from violence to democracy.

That might appears something all sides can agree on too, but you do not have to examine the proposition too closely before confronting the shadows of Colombia and Castlereagh.

NI First Minister David Trimble
David Trimble wants government action

With this in mind, the Ulster Unionists say they have lost confidence in the process in general and republicans in particular, and only decisive action can win them back to the pro-Agreement fold.

The absence of the Ulster Unionists from a final round table meeting at the end of the Hillsborough talks was more than an on-the-day snub.

It symbolised the party's growing detachment as it eyes its uncertain prospects in next year's Assembly elections.

So what is to be done? David Trimble talked about a more "rigorous application" of the principles drawn up by George Mitchell on peace and democracy.


The day after the talks the rain stopped and the sun came out over Stormont

It is fair to assume civil servants will now be looking at forms of words which might toughen these principles.

However, unionist sceptics say words are not enough - they want sanctions against parties linked to paramilitaries in breach of such principles.

Whether Irish nationalists and republicans will buy into that is highly questionable.

At the moment the public can be forgiven for asking "crisis, what crisis?"

The executive and the assembly are up and running, and even the anti-Agreement minister Peter Robinson is in the good news game, announcing plans for a new rapid transit system for Belfast as part of his transport strategy.

Yet the implicit threat is that if the Ulster Unionists do not get what they want by 24 July they might not return to the assembly when it come back from its summer break in September.

The day after the talks the rain stopped and the sun came out over Stormont. But some poor civil servants are unable to enjoy it.

They are beavering away in a basement somewhere on a formula which may, or may not, save the peace process.

If you want to make a comment about this article send it to politicsni@bbc.co.uk

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

05 Jul 02 | N Ireland
14 Jun 02 | N Ireland
14 Jun 02 | N Ireland
13 Jun 02 | N Ireland
30 Nov 01 | UK Politics
15 Jun 02 | N Ireland
04 Jul 02 | N Ireland
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