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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 November, 2004, 16:59 GMT
Inching towards political deal?
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

It's not every week George Bush takes time out of his Thanksgiving holiday on his ranch in Texas to phone a Northern Ireland politician.

But that's what happened when Ian Paisley got the call from the most powerful man in the world, urging him to go the extra mile for peace.

The DUP leader responded by endorsing the Whitehouse's policy on terrorism and claiming he was just trying to apply it closer to home.

President Bush
President Bush has talked to Ian Paisley by phone
Gerry Adams expected a similar call - one presumes he would be too diplomatic to mention to the president that some of the murals on the Lower Falls now portray him as America's greatest failure.

Back at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the president confirmed to waiting reporters that he stands ready and willing to help.

London and Dublin will no doubt have had a hand in this attempt to pile on the pressure.

The message is that the president expects every politician to do his or her duty.

But George Bush slightly undermined this by giving the impression that he was far more interested in the burger he was about to eat than the minutiae of the Northern Ireland process.

The discussions are complex, but if one crunch issue has emerged it seems to be the business of photographs being taken of any future IRA disarmament

We appear to be only days away from the moment when the British and Irish Governments will have to make a judgement call on the negotiations about restoring Stormont.

The discussions are complex, but if one crunch issue has emerged it seems to be the business of photographs being taken of any future IRA disarmament.

Ian Paisley says seeing is believing - republicans have called it an "attempt to humiliate" the IRA.

On Friday evening, one Irish source told the BBC he believed republicans were up for the photographs in some shape or form, and the essential problem now was whether the DUP was psychologically ready for a deal.

However, later that same night a spokeswoman for the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs was at pains to clarify that it was not Dublin's official view that photographic evidence was no longer an issue.

Visible decommissioning is the most sensitive issue of all
Speaking on the BBC's Inside Politics programme on Saturday, Sinn Fein's Mitchel McLaughlin appeared to slightly soften his party's line on the photographs.

Despite being given several chances to do so, the Sinn Fein chairman didn't rule out the possibility that any future IRA disarmament might be captured on camera.

Nor did he describe it as humiliating - a term he used on the same programme just a few weeks ago.

Instead, he repeated that it was up to General John De Chastelain and the armed groups to work out their own mechanisms.

A hint or just a holding line? We may be wiser once Ian Paisley meets the general.

The DUP leader is reiterating to colleagues that if there are no photographs there is no deal.

Matter of presentation

Something else the DUP appears to want is a clear differentiation between the Joint Declaration drawn up last year with its associated proposals for demilitarisation and the return of paramilitary fugitives, and any paper he will endorse.

The DUP is thought to object to some language in the government's latest suggestions which could tie them to what they have tried to portray as "Trimble concessions".

This may be a presentational matter, rather than one of substance; just like last October, we could expect to see a series of different papers being issued, with the parties assenting to some proposals but not to others.

The word in political circles is that the two prime ministers had been prepared to fly to Hillsborough last week if all had gone according to plan.

We appear to be inching forward, but it is not yet quite time for the helicopter pilots to fire up their engines.




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