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Last Updated: Friday, 1 October, 2004, 22:03 GMT 23:03 UK
Peace in our time?
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

This was the week in 1938 that Neville Chamberlain waved his paper and declared peace in our time. It turned out to be the over-statement of the century.

Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson
Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson travelled to Dublin
But in this century, one might well wonder if peace is finally breaking out on this island. The answer to that should be more apparent within the next two weeks.

Certainly, Ian Paisley's visit to the Irish Republic's capital to meet the Taoiseach signalled a new era in Dublin-DUP relations. Nobody asked what took him so long - they were just glad to see him.

Brian Cowen wasn't there to witness the historic event - he has moved to finance, leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs to Dermot Ahern.

But in another quirk of history, Michael Collins himself was at the table - well, his namesake who works in the Taoiseach's office anyway.

Mr Paisley told reporters the meeting came at a time of growing confidence in unionism - a signal perhaps that old fears are subsiding.

But are nationalist fears growing? While nationalists welcomed the DUP visit to Government Buildings, Sinn Fein and the SDLP were watching with some anxiety. Bertie Ahern must not give too much away, they warn.

QUICK GUIDE

Notably, Secretary of State Paul Murphy, in a statement after he took ill in Brighton, signalled London's determination to press on with changes to the Good Friday Agreement, insisting it's not set in stone.

This definitely suits the Alliance Party and could yet suit the DUP - who are most anxious for change. Sinn Fein appear to be uneasy about London's plans.

But if London goes ahead without nationalist approval, might it appeal to republicans? It would get them off the hook perhaps of having to agree changes to the Agreement to which the SDLP are vehemently opposed.

But only if the changes are minor in republican eyes.

Ironically, in attacking change it regards as Good Friday Agreement-unfriendly, the SDLP may be doing the DUP a favour.

The DUP will be able to say that if it is not a new Agreement, then why is Mark Durkan so unhappy? Thus, just as the DUP's opposition in 1998 made life easier for the Sinn Fein leadership, Mark Durkan may be the best salesman the DUP have - next to Ian Paisley, of course.

Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley

On the BBC's Inside Politics this week, Ulster Unionist assembly member Michael McGimpsey suggested his own party would object to any change in the election of the first and deputy first minister that removed the right of unionists and nationalists to veto each other's choice.

The Ulster Unionists are weighing whether to stay in opposition or go into government.

The party could seek an alliance with the PUP. If David Ervine joined its grouping, he would give the party second choice over Sinn Fein and an extra ministry at the expense of the DUP.


  Click to listen to Inside Politics on BBC Radio Ulster
The downside is the party could end up with regional development, which comes with the unpopular imposition of water charges. The other factor is the UVF have yet to decommission.

New Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern claimed on Radio Ulster this week that the DUP were not seeking to alter the fundamentals. Did anyone hear an objection raised from the DUP?

By mid-October, the two governments' proposals on the way forward may be published
Next week it is Gerry Adams' turn to meet the two Aherns, Bertie and Dermot.

Since Leeds Castle, the one player who has been very quiet is P O'Neill. Are we about to get a statement from the IRA? Some politicians are guessing it's likely.

This may only be likely if there is a deal. And judging by the latest soundings from republicans, all is not well in the negotiations.

While some republicans now regret that the deal was not concluded last year, they say they are not prepared to settle for a dilution of the Good Friday Agreement at the DUP's behest.

There are other sticking points. "Policing remains a big part of the problem," said a republican source.

Sinn Fein is not yet convinced the DUP are serious about the devolution of policing and its structures. There is still no agreement on how a department of policing and justice would operate, how decisions would be taken and how ministers would interact with it.

Republicans say they do not want a prolonged period of direct rule and are not convinced the DUP want an early pre-election resolution.

DUP leader Ian Paisley has the luxury afforded to no other unionist leader of modern times - not having Ian Paisley shouting "sell-out" from the sidelines.

By mid-October, the two governments' proposals on the way forward may be published.

If there is no October resolution, Michael McGimpsey has warned the assembly is doomed.




SEE ALSO:
Murphy collapses at conference
28 Sep 04 |  Northern Ireland
Consultation on NI truth process
14 May 04 |  Northern Ireland
NI commission 'could heal wounds'
18 Feb 04 |  Northern Ireland
Killings will 'go unsolved'
10 Jun 03 |  Northern Ireland
Pledge over Cory report
14 Jan 04 |  Northern Ireland


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