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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Game on for devolution deal?
By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

As a medical man, Lord Alderdice once said that he never gave any patient a "clean bill of health" for fear that they would collapse on the way out of the surgery.

But so far as the Provisional IRA is concerned the latest judgement from Lord Alderdice and his fellow monitors is as close to a clean bill of health as it is likely to get.

Lord Alderdice
Lord Alderdice is one of the commissioners on the IMC

Knowing they had a good springboard for next week's talks in Scotland, the government started "puffing" the report early with Tony Blair making his first contribution all the way from Madrid the night before its publication.

Peter Hain and Bertie Ahern weighed in, with the secretary of state describing the IRA's renunciation of violence as "irreversible" and the taoiseach talking of the profound nature of the Provisionals' transformation.

Heading in for a meeting with Peter Hain, Gerry Adams pointed the finger at Ian Paisley.

Republicans, he insisted, were keeping to their commitments.

"How long are other parties going to cast about for an excuse or for some straw to stop them from coming forward and taking up their rightful position of administering rule in this part of our island?

"And that's the big question which faces...particularly... Ian Paisley.''

The Sinn Fein president said the DUP leader could delay a deal but not resist change forever.

As everyone knows, the DUP's reaction is key. Given there is a negotiation under way, they were never going to have a Damascene conversion immediately after reading the report.

Ian Paisley's initial response was predictably mixed.

ian paisley
Ian Paisley is concerned over detail on a murder inquiry

The DUP leader took credit for the progress achieved in recent times which he contrasted to the days of "pushover unionists" - the DUP's derogatory term for the Ulster Unionists.

Mr Paisley raised concerns about the lack of detail on the murder of Denis Donaldson and the alleged involvement of individual IRA members in criminality.

He also flagged up the thorny question of Sinn Fein support for the police and the rule of law.

But taken as a whole, one DUP source described the party's reaction as a "qualified welcome".

To get a sense of where we go from here, you can do worse than turn to DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson's speech to the Conservative Conference in Bournemouth.

St Andrews
St Andrews is the venue for next week's talks

At Scotland, his party will press for more progress on Sinn Fein support for policing and what they call a "default" which would mean that if the IRA goes back to its old ways, punishment is meted out to republicans alone, not the rest of the parties collectively.

Sinn Fein sources say they will resist any move whereby if an allegation is made against republicans, the DUP can hold on to a "corporate assembly" or some other fall back option.

On policing, Sinn Fein insist they are in favour of law and order but the interlocking agreements necessary on the timing of devolution of policing and justice and the staging of a special ard fheis to put the matter to grassroots republicans have yet to be worked out.

Right now two sets of consultations involving different power point presentations are being rolled out. One is Sinn Fein's internal exercise on policing.

The other is the DUP's testing of its own waters on power-sharing. The betting is that both will still be up and running by the time we get to 24 November.

The DUP say they won't make any decision after next week's Scottish talks but will consult their community before considering any final package.

Although government sources say there are no current plans for a further round of intensive talks after St Andrews a number of parties say they have been sounded out about the possibility.

Clearly, if ministers believe a deal is possible more talks are likely on the details, as was the pattern after the Leeds castle negotiations in 2004.

All the ingredients for a deal are there, but probably not by 24 November.

But, unless you are inside Ian Paisley's mind, it's impossible to know for sure.

If ministers decide it's game on for the turn of the year or the spring, they may finesse their devolution deadline.

But if they conclude the DUP is stringing them along then the Stormont axe will come down as promised.

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04 Oct 06 |  Northern Ireland
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