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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
'Dancing towards a deal'

By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent

We were told it was a carefully choreographed sequence of political events that would produce an agreement on power-sharing in advance of elections to the Stormont Assembly.

In the end, if Tuesday proved anything it was this: in Northern Ireland you can have all the choreography you want, but you cannot make the partners dance if they do not want to.

The British and Irish Governments have been working away behind the scenes for weeks to give the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein - the two parties who hold the key to the future of power-sharing - a fair wind as they head into an election campaign.

Significantly, David Trimble and Gerry Adams - the leaders of those two parties - met repeatedly on their own, slowly building a fragile bond of trust between them and even shaking hands for the first time, years after they became partners in the peace process.
Gerry Adams has "built a fragile bond with Mr Trimble"

The government cannot say that it wants or expects those two parties to emerge as winners in the elections called last month. But here is the underlying political reality.

All democratic exercises in Northern Ireland, however conventional they appear to outsiders, really consist of two separate elections - one within the Catholic community and one within the Protestant.

It is widely expected that in this poll for the first time Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, will edge ahead of the nationalist SDLP.

Because both parties are committed to power-sharing that outcome will not significantly alter the prospects for forming a government after the elections - although unionists are less happy about working with Sinn Fein than with the more moderate alternative.

All the doubt and uncertainty is on the unionist side.

'Further concessions'

David Trimble's Ulster Unionists are themselves deeply divided on the issue of whether it is right to share power with Sinn Fein and they face a powerful challenge from Ian Paisley's DUP, which is certain that it is not.

The whole idea of the "deal that never was" was to create a deal between Mr Trimble and Sinn Fein which would prove that the Ulster Unionist leader could get the republican movement to deliver.
Republicans - literally in their case - can afford to keep their powder dry and reserve any compromises that might come for some later negotiation

The message to the Protestant community was meant to be that voting for Mr Trimble, and therefore for power-sharing was the right way to secure further concessions from the IRA.

It all went off course because the act of weapons decommissioning at the heart of it all was surrounded by the same level of secrecy as the first two.

Mr Trimble says during the negotiations leading up to Tuesday's failure, he made it perfectly clear that this latest weapons gesture would have to be accompanied by some kind of public proof.

'Nationalist community'

Republicans say they cannot see that there was any scope for misunderstanding. An event designed to show how well the rival traditions could work together had accidentally proved how far apart they remain. It is hard to see how it can be fixed.

Doing a deal would make Mr Trimble look rather weak unless it was absolutely brilliant - and in the current circumstances, it is hard to see how it can be.

Mr Blair said election would go ahead on 26 November
Mr Blair said election would go ahead on 26 November

Sinn Fein in any case has little incentive to do a deal. Confident of winning a majority of the nationalist community vote it can afford to sit back and wait to see what happens in unionism before beginning to make deals and concessions.

If the anti-Agreement members of the Ulster Unionists and the DUP have a majority over Mr Trimble's supporters, then creating a functioning government out of the assembly might take months or even years.

Republicans - literally in their case - can afford to keep their powder dry and reserve any compromises that might come for some later negotiation.

Tuesday's choreography so nearly produced a triumph. But when people are learning to dance together, it is inevitable they will step on each others' toes.





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