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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 March 2006, 10:11 GMT
NI 'off the radar' in Washington
Gareth Gordon
By Gareth Gordon
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

The "best liberal newspaper columnist of the latter 20th century" turned her mind to Northern Ireland's still warring politicians and suddenly seemed very illiberal indeed.

The White House in Washington
NI politicians are back on the White House guest list
It was St Patrick's week 2000, in the final stages of Bill Clinton's presidency and, as usual, unionist and nationalist alike had decamped to Mary McGrory's home town of Washington.

"I mean, some of the parties come over here and I don't think they have more than their immediate family on their rolls but he sees them all," she told me with all the mischief I'd been hoping for.

"They come to the White House; they're listened to; they're made of; they're driven around to television studios; they go to banquets; they go to the White House on St Patrick's Day and they're so familiar with it now they know it.

"It's a great party but I think it's time for results myself.

"I think in eight years, if we were going to do any good by all this conviviality, it would begin to show and now the great centrepiece of the talks and the negotiations, the Northern Irish Assembly, has been suspended.

"So I have a feeling and I don't know how widespread it is... that really this year it might have been better for them to stay home and work out their problems. And not come again until it was finally settled."

Mary McGrory passed away in 2004, but the political event she called time on long ago is still going strong (well strongish) and once again many of our politicians are heading west.

Never-ending story

The assembly is still suspended - an altogether lengthier suspension than the one she mentioned in 2000 - but President Clinton is long gone and with him much of the patience and interest in our never-ending story.

There is a big Irish story in the US capital at the moment - the plight of the undocumented Irish immigrants and their fight for legal status.

As for the plight of the Northern Ireland political process, it's not even on the radar.

The party leaders have been invited to the White House - unlike last year when they were shunned following the collapse of attempts to restore devolution in December 2004, and the subsequent Northern Bank robbery.

But they won't meet President Bush. And the DUP isn't going; instead a group of party MPs will visit Washington soon.

The Northern Ireland secretary rolled his eyes last week when just the BBC and one other news organisation turned up to question him at a media opportunity in south Belfast.

Peter Hain
We'll be ready to announce what we're going to do about restoring the institutions when we're ready to announce it
Peter Hain
Northern Ireland secretary
"You've succeeded in boring us into submission," I told him.

"That's my intention," he replied, though no-one should be fooled.

No politician loves the spotlight like Peter Hain but there's only so much even he can do to keep this story alive.

By now the up-and-at-em tactic with which he began the New Year by threatening to cut MLAs' salaries unless there were signs of progress before the summer, might have been expected to have borne some fruit.

Of course "progress" is open to interpretation. But it's not a description which remotely fits anything we've seen so far.

First we were promised a prime ministerial visit. That hasn't happened so far.

Broad hints

And then there were the broad hints about a shadow assembly and a big announcement in Downing Street on Wednesday.

The two prime ministers met but there was no joint news conference, no communique and no blueprint.

"We'll be ready to announce what we're going to do about restoring the institutions when we're ready to announce it, " said Mr Hain, not particularly helpfully.

DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson met the Loyalist Commission
Now, maybe, something will be announced before the marching season with activity at Stormont in the autumn.

But with the DUP insisting on a two-stage process with an entry-level assembly, and nationalists calling on the government to recall the assembly and set a six-week deadline to elect a first and deputy first minister - a tactic they know will result in the DUP bringing about a crash - officials are head scratching like never before.

The one chink of light may be in loyalism with elements of the UDA showing signs of being on the road to peace, even if the instability within that organisation must be a threat.

'Useful'

DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson has told the BBC that he and the north Belfast MP, Nigel Dodds, have met the chairman of the Loyalist Commission, the Reverend Mervyn Gibson, with a view to helping this process along.

Speaking on Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme, he said: "I want to give every encouragement to those within the loyalist paramilitary groups who are wanting to take their organisation away from criminality and violence.

"I think it's essential that they win out but there does seem to be some conflict within that organisation at the present time. We need to be very clear whose side we're on."

Although he wouldn't give any details about the meeting until he has reported back to party colleagues, he described it as "useful" adding: "I think we have a fair idea of how we can make some further progress..."

Asked if he would consider going further and meeting the UDA he said: "I want to encourage people to end paramilitary and criminal activity and where people are clearly intent to do that then that encouragement will come from us.

"The form it comes in will be a matter for the party to decide. I wouldn't want to prejudice any decision that they might take."

It was put to Mr Robinson if that meeting with the UDA was to take place, it could help pave the way to a meeting with Sinn Fein.

"There would be those who would say that and that's why the party officers will consider all elements of the issue before they take a decision," he said.

"Possibilities might be plentiful. What the party does will be their decision when they have heard the report and I don't want to prejudice that decision."

That wasn't a "no."

Amidst of all this inertia, could that just be the first hint that all is not yet lost?




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