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Last Updated: Monday, 11 September 2006, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Intrigue fills air at new talks venue

By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

St Andrews is best known for its famous golf course and the fact that it was home to Prince William in his student days.

But now, the Scottish town appears to be establishing a reputation for political intrigue.

It has been selected by the British and Irish governments as the venue for next month's intensive talks, during which Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern will once again try to persuade the Northern Ireland parties to overcome their differences.

St Andrews
The university town is gaining a reputation for political intrigue

By a weird coincidence, it is also the place where the former junior defence minister Tom Watson (not the golfer!) chose to go on vacation before deciding to sign a letter demanding the prime minister's departure.

Mr Watson is reported to have visited Gordon Brown on his way back from St Andrews, but he has told the papers that this was purely a social call.

Nevertheless, it is weird to think that whilst Downing Street staff were attempting to secure one of St Andrews' top hotels as the venue for a Northern Ireland conference linked to Mr Blair's legacy, a Labour rebel was staying in the very same establishment ruminating on an attempted coup against the prime minister.

Will the question mark over Tony Blair's tenure have a negative impact on the prospects for securing a deal by November?

One analogy might be the period in 1996 and 1997 when the IRA ceasefire had broken down.

It did not matter what John Major said or did, it was evident that the IRA would not reinstate their ceasefire until after he had left office.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
Will the Blair/Brown controversy impact on an NI deal?

Why do a deal with a leader whose days are numbered, when an energetic newcomer is knocking at the door?

Sure enough, Labour won and after a few more bloody attacks, the IRA reinstated their ceasefire.

The next year, the new man, Tony Blair, helped deliver the Good Friday Agreement.

Now the tables are turned. Republicans would be fairly happy to oblige Mr Blair with another chapter for his memoirs.

But the DUP has no real interest in working to his timetable. Ian Paisley spoke warmly about Gordon Brown having "a special understanding of the Ulster Scots", when the chancellor visited Stormont earlier this year.

The DUP leader may be deluding himself. However, there could be a temptation on the part of some DUP members to spite Mr Blair by ensuring that any resolution does not come on his watch.

Peter Hain disagrees. In a speech to the British Irish Association conference in Oxford, he argued that if there is no deal in November, the chance will perhaps not come again until 2009.

The line of argument is that any new Labour prime minister will have too much to do, not least the challenge of trying to see off David Cameron.

Whoever the new leader is, he or she won't have the focus of Tony Blair and an interregnum is inevitable until after the next Irish and British general elections.

Peter Hain
Peter Hain is hoping for progress

Maybe so, but a November deal still looks unlikely.

It is probable that DUP politicians will treat any salary cuts as a badge of honour and argue that any internal consultations they may have begun after next month's Independent Monitoring Commission report should be given more time.

In this regard, comments Peter Hain made on Inside Politics about potentially dissolving the 2003 Assembly are interesting.

Despite all the tough talk about 24 November, most politicians assume they have a safety net because, even if they lose their wages, the Assembly suspended by John Reid remains on the legal books until May 2007 and can be called back for a six-week period to elect a government should a breakthrough come in the New Year.

If the government is truly serious about 24 November, it could announce that the 2003 Assembly will be dissolved on the same date. But this would rob it of any flexibility.

Alternatively, the Secretary of State could threaten dissolution at a later date, setting up, if you like, a second deadline.

Given that Tony Blair would like a Northern Ireland deal to be sealed on his watch, how the government handles the question of when it should dissolve the suspended Stormont assembly may provide some clues about when Mr Blair intends to quit Downing Street.

Maybe the Labour rebel Tom Watson should book another holiday in St Andrew's next month to find out more on this topic.

But somehow I cannot imagine that he would relish bumping into Mr Blair in the hotel bar and, no doubt, the feeling is mutual.

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