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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 October 2005, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
Parties seek presents from Number 10

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Staff at Downing Street wheeled a couple of trolleys piled high with presents through the shiny black door shortly before Gerry Adams arrived at Number Ten last Thursday.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams received no birthday presents at Number 10

But even though the Sinn Fein president was celebrating his 57th birthday, the parcels were not for him.

Instead, they appeared to be part of the official exchange of gifts between Tony Blair and one of his other VIP visitors, the president of Iraq.

Instead of birthday greetings, waiting reporters engaged Mr Adams in conversation about someone we thought might be an old friend - Thomas "Slab" Murphy.

He had featured in the news that morning in relation to a major Assets Recovery Agency operation in the Greater Manchester area.

The West Belfast MP gave the impression he had not a clue who the County Louth farmer might be.

But Mr Adams appeared to know full well that the Assets Recovery Agency's official statement had not named any individual.

He insisted that he was not going to be drawn into responding to any off the record briefing from some "securocrat hostile both to republicans and the process".

Back in Belfast, the Ulster Unionists described the Assets Recovery Agency operation as a disturbing development which would have a serious impact on the political process

So how important was Mr Thomas Murphy to the republican movement, we enquired?

The 57-year-old politician was not in the mood to expand, pointing out only that he believed the timing of the raids was not coincidental.

What would be the impact of the operation on the political process? "None whatsoever," he replied.

So would he raise the matter with the prime minister? "Catch yerself on" came his parting reply.

"Slab" was the Louth man that dared not speak his name.

Orange halls

Back in Belfast, the Ulster Unionists described the Assets Recovery Agency Operation as a disturbing development which would have a serious impact on the political process.

However the DUP, also in London for talks, appeared far more laid back - showing no sign of making this a cause celebre.

Instead, the party is keen on filling its shopping trolley with concessions before proceeding to the talks checkout.

DUP leader Ian Paisley
The DUP, in London for talks, "appeared far more laid back"

First they picked up a new chairman of the Ulster Scots Agency who met with their approval, followed by the de-rating of Orange halls.

A new Victims Commissioner is on the way, and DUP sources are hopeful about big changes in the Policing Board.

The party wants the Parades Commission replaced and is also pushing for a raft of beneficial financial measures for Northern Ireland, such as the tax incentives which were discussed during some of the negotiations which took place last December.

Sinn Fein also had cash on their mind. They raised the question of an extension to European peace money with the prime minister.

They also dwelt on the forthcoming legislation on transferring policing and justice powers to local politicians.

'Police their own areas'

Back in December, Sinn Fein indicated they would call a special Ard Fheis on policing after this legislation is passed and after the parties agree the departmental structure and powers to be transferred.

The first hurdle will be easily overcome, but the second is far more difficult, tied as it is to overall agreement on devolution.

Sinn Fein appear aware of the difficulties involved in leaving their policing policy in hoc to the DUP, which may explain why they have expressed interest in initiatives such as the policing conference proposed by the US and British governments.

Unionists fear that a mixture of locally recruited community police officers and locally-based restorative justice projects will provide republicans with the power, as the DUP's Sammy Wilson puts it, "to police their own areas".

The government insists that unionist fears are overblown, and that no convicted IRA men are going to be allowed to become police officers.

But of course not all republicans have criminal records.

Perhaps if he gets bored of farming and his other alleged activities, Thomas "Slab" Murphy could consider a new career, donning a pair of bicycle clips and becoming South Armagh's new bobby on the beat.




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