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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 17:35 GMT 18:35 UK
First glitch on the NI political road?

By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

There is an old Irish proverb that "a good start is half the work". There is an old Chinese proverb that even a journey of 1,000 miles must begin with the first step.

DUP leader Ian Paisley and the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams
Ian Paisley "decided the time was not quite right"

To mix proverbs, Tuesday 17 October was meant to be both a good start and the first step on the road for the St Andrews agreement, with the DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams perhaps even talking to each other around a Stormont committee table.

But just four days after Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern unveiled their apparently historic deal, the "good start" which Gerry Adams had wished for did not materialise.

His partner for peace, Ian Paisley, decided the time was not quite right to take that first step on the long road after all. The meeting has been postponed.

The issue at stake is the pledge of office which will have to be sworn by the ministers in a future power sharing executive.

The old pledge followed the Mitchell principles on peace and democracy but did not include a specific endorsement for the police and the courts.

The DUP say that at St Andrews they extracted a promise from the prime minister that just such an endorsement would be inserted into the new pledge.

'Due to be nominated'

The wording of the actual St Andrews Agreement is vague on this score.

It states only that "before the government legislates on the pledge of office it will consider the outcome of further Preparation for Government Committee discussions on policing and the rule of law".

The new pledge will be put into legislation in late November and the DUP believe that Martin McGuinness should swear the oath on the 24th November, the date on which he and Ian Paisley are due to be nominated as first and deputy first minister.

However, this would be before the Sinn Fein ard fheis convenes to decide the party policy on policing, so could cause Sinn Fein's chief negotiator some embarrassment.

Gerry Adams played down the worth of side letters claiming they had been talked about many times before to little effect

Government briefings that the pledge could wait until March next year, when the new executive is about to be formed, spooked the DUP.

They sensed they were being pushed around on the pledge. That is why Ian Paisley boycotted his meeting and why he threatened to publish what he claims is a government letter on this issue.

If the government backtracks on its side deal, he says, he will "push it down their throats".

'Broke cover'

However, Gerry Adams played down the worth of side letters claiming they had been talked about many times before to little effect.

Like so many others before, the row is not about principle but more about timing.

If it endorses the St Andrews Agreement the Sinn Fein ard comhairle, or party executive, will effectively have bought into policing by 10 November.

Any new pledge of office will be put into law before 24 November. But Sinn Fein could do without Martin McGuinness taking the pledge before their conference debates the issue.

The row over the pledge broke out on the same day that the DUP MEP Jim Allister broke cover, spelling out his profound scepticism over the deal.

Mr Allister was at St Andrews, but was notable by his absence when Ian Paisley addressed reporters after the agreement was reached.

The MEP shares many of the concerns of the UK Unionist Bob McCartney who has already rejected the idea of a mandatory coalition including all the major parties as undemocratic.

But the fact that a major DUP figure has started voicing these doubts is more significant.

Mr Allister described the continued existence of the IRA army council as a deal breaker. His intervention indicates that the party's internal consultation is far from a done deal.

NI secretary Peter Hain insists the row over the pledge of office is just a glitch which will be overcome. Both DUP and Sinn Fein officials also seem confident that eventually a way forward can be found.

However, given the lack of trust on both sides, this may be far from the last glitch on the road to 26 March.




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