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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 October 2006, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
Search for elusive NI peace deal
By Kevin Connolly
Ireland correspondent

If you have a vague feeling that you've been here before, well that's because you have - figuratively, if not quite literally.

Tony Blair
Mr Blair has invested much time in the Irish peace process

The provincial touring production of Northern Ireland's ongoing political crisis has indeed been on the road in Great Britain before - first at Lancaster House in London, then at Weston Park in Shropshire and most recently at Leeds Castle in Kent.

This time around, we are in St Andrews - home of golf, and therefore for the duration of the talks, home of feeble extended metaphors revolving about bunkers and patches of rough.

Each time the parties are convened the word from the British and Irish governments is that a deal - a stable permanent agreement to devolve power to a regime in which Catholics and Protestants share power - is agonisingly close.

One Irish newspaper has even quoted the view of one government source that we are down to the "how and the when" of a deal. To me it seems, it's still a matter of "if", too.

You can see how it looks to the two prime ministers who've invested so much time and effort in a process where push has shown a genius for never quite coming to shove.

Northern Ireland has undergone a transformation whose scale is masked by the failure to agree a comprehensive political deal
Kevin Connolly

Tony Blair must be considering how his legacy will look to historians - and it will look a lot better if stability in Ireland is achieved on his watch.... has any British leader since before the time of Henry II involved himself in Irish affairs and left power with his reputation enhanced as a result?

Bertie Ahern has an eye on the more immediate future - he faces elections next year and solving "the north" as it's known in "the south" would go a long way towards helping the electorate forget a couple of tax-free loans and whip-rounds he accepted as minister of finance in the 1990s.

The nuts and bolts of how a deal must happen don't change - you can't have power-sharing without the participation of the largest party representing Catholics, which is Sinn Fein, and the largest protestant party - Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists.

In the last few years, Northern Ireland has undergone a transformation whose scale is masked by the failure to agree a comprehensive political deal.

The IRA, for example, has decommissioned its weapons and wound up its campaign of poltical violence - the only doubts about it which persist are allegations of involvement in racketeering.

Gerry Adams, leader of the Republican movement, has become expert at making enormous changes and concessions while creating the impression for his own followers that it has held consistently to its old ways.

Gerry Adams
Mr Adams support is crucial to the process

The one concession left for Republicans to make politically is the hardest - the acceptance of the legitimacy of the police in Northern Ireland, and some sort of involvement in the criminal justice system.

You will know the troubles are over when Sinn Fein is advising its voters to make witness statements to the police, and foot patrols pass unremarked through republican heartlands

Republicans aren't going to like it, but most will swallow it if Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness put their weight behind the move.

In return, they want Ian Paisley to sign up to sharing power with Sinn Fein - and that's where the problem may come.

Enigma of Paisley

Ian Paisley has mellowed at least in terms of his public pronouncements since the day 24 years ago when he publicly denounced the Pope as the anti-Christ - but he has built his career on hostility to Catholic Irish nationalism.

He can portray the changes that Sinn Fein has made as the result of his own uncompromising negotiating style if he likes, but if he signs up to power-sharing it will be a stroke of his pen that puts an old IRA leader - Martin McGuiness - in power alongside him.

Few people in Northern Ireland know what's in Ian Paisley's mind, and fewer still know what's in his heart - and there's no doubt that like Gerry Adams he has the political skill and authority to sell enormous changes to his followers if he so chooses.

Is he about to make that choice? I have followed this process for many years now, and I think Ian Paisley remains so enigmatic a figure that I feel there's no shame in saying honestly that I have no idea.





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