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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 06:33 GMT 07:33 UK
Minds focus on devolution deadine
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

Even Ian Paisley has said very clearly he doesn't think there is going to be a deal by 24 November.

"No, I don't think so... I can't see it," he told reporters in Downing Street this week.

Ian Paisley pictured outside Downing Street
Ian Paisley does not believe a deal will be reached by 24 November

His frankness ahead of the summit between Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in Chequers this week does not, however, seem to have dampened efforts to find a way forward.

But it has focused some minds on just how firm the Northern Ireland Office is going to be about the deadline.

Indeed, SDLP leader Mark Durkan issued a statement expressing alarm that Ian Paisley claimed the prime minister had not even raised the deadline with him during their meeting.

It is very clear that the DUP has effectively decided that the deadline is more of a hindrance than a help and is hoping to persuade the NIO of this fact.

Indeed, for the chest-beating DUP, breaking the deadline has almost become a point of principle.

Issues

"The difficulty," said one DUP source, "is the deadline is the story."

The source pointed to three or four issues that need to be dealt with, issues that cannot "realistically" be dealt with by the deadline.

Ian Paisley put it this way: "Can we have people in government not supporting the police and connected to criminality? That is not going to be settled with a deadline."

What was notable was that Mr Paisley did not rule out doing a deal with Tony Blair - even though the prime minister has suggested he will be out of office within a year.

Hence, Mr Paisley has hinted that a deal is possible within months.

By coincidence next spring is also the date that the real assembly - the one elected in 2003 - expires.

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair hope a deal can be reached

The one due to close in November is merely an artificial one created by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain that operates to his rules.

There is speculation behind the scenes that the DUP is going to offer hope of progress but not actual power-sharing by 24 November.

"A deal to get an agreement," was how one talks insider (not from the DUP) put it.

Under this scenario the DUP could theoretically table a paper that outlines a timeframe for progress over a longer period.

What after all would the NIO do if the DUP suggested keeping the game alive with a face to face meeting between it and Sinn Fein?

DUP/Sinn Fein relations

Of course, no-one sees Ian Paisley meeting Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams within weeks, but could Peter Robinson, his deputy, have a meeting with Martin McGuinness, with whom he already sits on the Preparation for Government committee?

The DUP are quick to point out that there are no plans to change its policy regarding Sinn Fein, but what if the political landscape changes dramatically?

The DUP is on record as saying it will consult with all sections of unionism when it believes a prima facie case has been made that the IRA has made the transition from violence to democracy.

One thing is clear: Ian Paisley likes being in the game, particularly if he can get into penalty time

The DUP could decide to hold the consultation following a positive IMC report or perhaps after the multi-party talks in Scotland.

The IMC report - which Peter Robinson hopes will be presented in a new way with lots of graphics - is due out on 4 October, about one week from the proposed multi-party talks in Scotland.

Mr Paisley has said he doesn't want to go. But he hasn't said he won't go.

One thing is clear: Ian Paisley likes being in the game, particularly if he can get into penalty time.

'Feeling good'

As he left Downing Street this week, he told a journalist how he was feeling.

"Better than ever I was," he said.

He is thriving on being at the pinnacle of his popularity.

But at age 80 and after a lifetime of saying no, he is not for moving quickly or changing rapidly.

Besides his propensity to say no, Mr Paisley has also been consistent in recent years about the fact that he must have time to make up his mind.

Maybe he has no intention of ever doing a deal, but his demands for more time - repeated in the assembly this week - may yet strike a chord with the prime minister and his mandarins.

Among those in government who have spent years on the process, what is a few months they might ask?

But others are weary. Sources suggest Taoiseach Ahern, who has an election to fight, does not want the process dragged into the spring.

Sinn Fein also has cautioned against moving the deadline.

Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, playing the firm parent, warned in Londonderry on Thursday night that politicians who failed to reach the deadline would be sidelined on policy issues, effectively doomed to a life of virtual politics.

Others might well fear the result of a missed deadline is not virtual politics, but a virtual deal that fails to materialise.




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