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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 November 2006, 14:50 GMT
Yeah but no but... what next?
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams don't appear to have a great deal in common with Vicky Pollard, the teenager from hell made famous by the comedian Matt Lucas on Little Britain.

Ian Paisley, Vicky Pollard and Gerry Adams
Vicky Pollard's catchphrase was echoed by Paisley and Adams
But this week, both men's responses appeared eerily reminiscent of Vicky's catchphrase, "yeah but no but".

On Monday, Sinn Fein said the St Andrews deal had potential, but failed to set a date for a special conference to endorse the police along the lines envisaged in the agreement.

On Thursday, the DUP described the deal as a "work in progress" and declared once again that unless Sinn Fein moves first on policing the DUP has no intention of sharing power.

The St Andrews text said the parties must confirm their acceptance of the deal by 10 November.

Despite the ambiguity of their responses, the governments have chosen to interpret the parties' comments as acceptance.

Ministers will now press ahead with the publication of an emergency law to change the Stormont rules and set the wording for a future ministerial pledge of office.

Unless it's clear everything has come to a crashing halt, it looks like ministers will try to keep the Stormont show on the road until 26 March, the target date for devolution
It has been disagreement over what that pledge should say about the police and when the shadow first and deputy first ministers should take it which has upset the timetable laid down at St Andrews.

There is still no sign of a resolution to the pledge row and as 24 November draws close, the chances of an assembly meeting to witness the formal nomination of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to the two top jobs on that date looks slim.

So will the governments prove as understanding if the parties stumble at that fence as they have done over the refusal of Ian Paisley to meet Gerry Adams at a Stormont committee and the highly conditional responses to St Andrews?

Interviewed on Inside Politics, Secretary of State Peter Hain talked darkly about dissolving the assembly if there's no agreement by 24 November.

But he didn't appear to rule out ways around the 24 November problem, such as the DUP and Sinn Fein confirming by letter who would fill the top jobs if their various other concerns are met.

The government could dissolve the assembly and cut the politicians' wages and allowances if they fail to meet another deadline.

Back to life

But that might not necessarily be the end of the line as a fresh election on the first Wednesday in March could bring Stormont back to life.

The politicians will have to continue swotting up on education, the ministerial pledge and the other matters up for discussion over the next few months
Unless it's clear everything has come to a crashing halt, it looks like ministers will try to keep the Stormont show on the road until 26 March, the target date for devolution.

Their assessment probably remains that both the DUP and Sinn Fein leaderships appear to be heading in the general direction the governments want, even though their pace does not match the timetable set at St Andrews.

However, if the politicians decide there has been no sanction for not sticking to the political timetable this autumn, they might be tempted to play fast and loose with the timetable for the spring.

Apart from dealing with the Stormont rules, the emergency law will also put off the ban on academic selection which had been due to come into force on 24 November.

But will that be as great a victory as the DUP believed when they negotiated the delay at St Andrews?

Educational vacuum

All the indications are that either the Stormont Programme for Government Committee over the next few months or the Assembly meeting after 26 March will be tasked with designing a new admissions system to fill a complete educational vacuum.

This means that nationalists who opposed the 11-plus seem to have a veto on any return to academic selection because the new admissions system would require the consent of both communities.

The politicians will have to continue swotting up on education, the ministerial pledge and the other matters up for discussion over the next few months.

They won't be the only ones doing their homework - the 10 November political deadline coincided with Northern Ireland primary school pupils sitting their 11-plus, whilst the 24 November deadline falls on the same date that the children take the second part of the exam.

If any of the 11-year-olds replied to their questions with a Vicky Pollard-esque "yeah but no but", it's hard to imagine their examiners would decide, like the two governments, that they had passed their test.


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