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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 September 2006, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
St Andrews talks may prove vital

By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

As they prepare for next month's intensive talks in Scotland, government officials might be tempted to let the negotiations run longer than the current deadline.

They know that the sabbatarian DUP will not negotiate on a Sunday.

Will politicians be travelling here after November?

But do they really want the St Andrews discussions to conclude on Friday 13, October 2006?

Sure, we have witnessed the Good Friday Agreement.

Some of us can even remember the Pancake Tuesday procrastination (when Northern Ireland Assembly elections were delayed in the hope of a deal).

But what are the omens going to be for a Friday 13 deal?

The parties are being allowed to send teams equivalent to half the number of their assembly group plus two.

Some of the more superstitious participants have pointed out to me that Friday 13 October isn't just any old Friday 13.

It is in fact the 699th anniversary of the terrible Friday on which King Philip the Fair of France tortured and subsequently massacred hundreds of Knights Templar to take their riches for his treasury.

If any of the talks participants wishes to ponder on this, they could always stop off on their way to St Andrews at the Masonic Rosslyn chapel near Edinburgh, which featured in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

St Andrews
Robert the Bruce held his first parliament at St Andrews

The omens might not be great for a deal, but St Andrews is shaping up to have all the ingredients for an unlikely bestseller.

Still trying to crank up the pressure, Peter Hain has signalled that he will form a positive or negative assessment after St Andrews.

If the governments don't believe a deal is on, the secretary of state is promising not just to pull the plug on his recently-created temporary assembly but also to push through legislation dissolving the assembly set up back in 1998.

That's intended to take away the safety net which many politicians believed they would enjoy during the spring.

What's not clear at this stage will be whether the dissolution of the 1998 assembly will take effect in the immediate aftermath of 24 November.

Presuming that dedicated assembly staff are due some notice of redundancy, even if an order is pushed through quickly it might have to include a later date for the actual dissolution.

Could this provide a second deadline in, say, December or January?

Dissolving the 1998 assembly is now in the mix alongside cutting MLAs' wages and allowances, scrapping the eleven-plus, and showing flexibility on the new rates system.

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson came under pressure in east Belfast

In addition, Peter Hain argues that no future prime minister will bring the same level of focus as Tony Blair to the Northern Ireland brief.

However, some local politicians aren't impressed.

The DUP's Jim Allister made another hardline speech during the week, describing the Blair administration as a dying government, fading into oblivion.

Why should the DUP hurry, he asked, when the next general election held out the tempting possibility of a hung parliament, which could provide rich opportunities for the DUP as fourth biggest party?

But given the urgent pressures of water charges and rates, is the next general election too long for the DUP to wait?

'Committed devolutionist'

Peter Robinson came under some pressure on this score from people attending a public meeting in east Belfast.

He told the audience that he was a committed devolutionist, adding tellingly that he was perhaps too much of a devolutionist for some in his own party.

Come 24 November the chances remain that the DUP will still be consulting their grassroots about power sharing, whilst Sinn Fein are consulting their members about policing.

Two years after the Knights Templar met their Friday 13 fate, the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, held his first parliament at St Andrews in 1309.

Bruce is most famous for learning the value of patience from watching a spider "try, try and try again" to weave its web.

But, it's claimed, he was hiding in a cave on Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast when he learned his lesson.

Patience may still be a commodity the British and Irish governments will need as they try to draw together the last threads of the Stormont web.

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