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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Push on for 'deal of all deals'
Are republicans and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party inching closer to a once unthinkable deal for Northern Ireland? BBC Northern Ireland security editor Brian Rowan examines the "big push" for a new political settlement.

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams
The DUP and Sinn Fein are now the biggest parties in Northern Ireland
If it is to work, then it will have to be the deal of all deals.

And that means significant movement, not just from republicans, but from all of the main players in this process.

Republicans have been talking privately to the British Government, and so too has the Democratic Unionist Party.

The men in the middle are the prime minister's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and the political director at the Northern Ireland Office, Jonathan Phillips.

In private and protracted talks with Sinn Fein and the DUP, they have been trying to assess the potential for the restoration of Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive - suspended in October 2002 amid allegations of IRA intelligence gathering.

Not that long ago, any deal involving the republican leadership and Ian Paisley's DUP would have been viewed as the unthinkable, but it is now the work of the latest political project.

Orangemen
A quiet summer - and more specifically a peaceful marching season - will be an essential backdrop to any potential deal-making in the autumn
There has been no direct contact between the two sides, as the DUP refuses to talk to Sinn Fein.

And that is why the men in the middle - Mr Powell and Mr Phillips on the British side, and a team of senior Irish Government officials, including Michael Collins from the Taoiseach's office - will have to assess the worth of what is on offer.

But the role of the two governments stretches way beyond this judgement call. If this negotiation is to work, then they too will have to deliver on big and difficult issues.

While some work will be done over the summer months, the next big push is not expected until the autumn, but what will be needed if the deal of all deals is to be done?

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, has already said his party is pressing for "a comprehensive and holistic package, which deals with all of the outstanding matters in a way that is definitive and conclusive".

Mr Adams chooses his words carefully, and what he is now saying suggests a lot.

He has raised the bar to new heights in terms of what this negotiation could achieve, and what it might mean for republicans.

Could it, for instance, bring the moment closer when the IRA is finally removed from the political equation?

Certainly, in the context set by Mr Adams, it seems - in the event of any deal - we could expect a new and clearer statement from the IRA on its future intentions.

Indeed, sources familiar with the talks accept that, this time, the IRA will have to deliver words that "don't require spin".

"If we have to reach for the decoding manual, the game is lost," one source told me.

At this stage, there is no new republican text with the governments.

Deals only come as part of a two-way process, and there are republican needs to be met if all of this is to work
IRA statements are usually delivered at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, and this negotiation has not yet arrived at that point.

Any deal would have to include the most significant acts of IRA decommissioning so far.

The DUP wants total disarmament and "some visual context" - something it stressed in recent private talks with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD).

That unreported meeting in Belfast involved General John de Chastelain and Andrew Sens from the Commission, as well as the DUP MPs Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds.

So far, the decommissioning process has been secret.

None of the IRA's three acts of putting "arms beyond use" has been filmed, and, on this issue alone, talks sources are warning that the "whole project could founder".

The DUP will oppose any scaling down of security, and any move to settle the controversial issue of on-the-runs
"A visual context for them (the DUP) is about being able to crow," one source said.

We know that the DUP will want any deal tested, and the party sees this as a process in which the republican "bluff" will be called before theirs.

In other words, the proof of the pudding will be in the reading of the reports of the new ceasefire watchdog body - the Independent Monitoring Commission - and de Chastelain's IICD, and in the assessments of Northern Ireland's chief constable, Hugh Orde.

Before sitting in government with Sinn Fein, the DUP wants proof "that paramilitarism is a thing of the past," and they want that tested over "a full IMC period of six months".

"Verification is key for them," one source told BBC News Online.

That may be so, but republicans are not going to wait around to be "democratised". Some way will have to be found to fill the gap.

A quiet summer - and more specifically a peaceful marching season - will be an essential backdrop to any potential deal-making in the autumn.

And in this context, prominent republicans - including senior IRA figures - were on the ground to guarantee that a protest at the recent controversial Whiterock Orange parade in west Belfast passed without trouble.

What was achieved here - in terms of a peaceful march and protest - will be the standards hoped for throughout the rest of the summer.

If all of the ingredients are right, sources close to the DUP leadership are making clear that a deal does not have to wait until after the next Westminster election
But deals only come as part of a two-way process, and there are republican needs to be met if all of this is to work.

They oppose the idea that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be turned into a "clearing house" for decisions taken by Executive ministers, and they are clear that any deal will require the DUP to join and sustain the political institutions.

Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness remain the senior republican negotiators and are working in a tight "cabinet" which includes Gerry Kelly, Ted Howell, Aidan McAteer, Leo Green and Richard McAuley.

It will be this "core group" inside Sinn Fein which will assess the republican potential for movement in these negotiations.

This group will also have to judge the worth of any future approach to the IRA leadership.

The transfer of policing and justice powers to local politicians - agreement on the when and how of that - is "key" to Sinn Fein being able to "look seriously" at participation in the new policing arrangements, including encouraging young nationalists and republicans to join the PSNI.

Garda Jerry McCabe
Garda Jerry McCabe was killed during an attempted robbery
But, on this issue, sources suggest there is still a significant gap to close.

Republicans will also want the commitments of previous negotiations honoured - demilitarisation, the issue of on-the-run suspects finally settled and, in the Irish Republic, the release of the IRA prisoners jailed for the manslaughter of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe.

For the Irish Government, this is the rawest of all issues.

The DUP will oppose any scaling down of security, and any move to settle the controversial issue of on-the-runs.

But it will no doubt argue that these were mistakes made by others in past negotiations.

In other words, these things were not conceded on the DUP's watch.

So, there are many high hurdles to get over and, at this time, nothing is agreed or guaranteed.

A talks source told me: "None of this in terms of the sequencing - the outworking of a timetable by one side or the other - leading to the institutions up and functioning (is agreed).

"All of this is still a matter of conjecture, discussion, debate, dispute and argument."

'Unanswered questions'

That may well be the case, but what was once considered unthinkable - a deal that involves Mr Paisley's party and the "Provos" - is now being worked on, and some believe it is do-able.

The when and how are the unanswered questions, but if all of the ingredients are right, sources close to the DUP leadership are making clear that a deal does not have to wait until after the next Westminster election.

"There is a sense that the DUP are serious about it this side of the election if it's big enough," another source told BBC News Online.

"I think it's sort of win-win for them, because if it's good enough, they can say to the electorate: 'We got more in six months than Trimble got in six years'."

Just a few days ago, Mr Paisley said it was possible to "detect the faint outline and context of a way forward".

It is a long way from the days of "Smash Sinn Fein", and, clearly, there is a game on.

The result is not yet known, but the pitch is being readied for September and by then we will get some idea if this deal of all deals is really possible.




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