Page last updated at 17:43 GMT, Wednesday, 6 August 2008 18:43 UK

From showdown to hoedown

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

Cowboy dancing
The western showdown threat has been replaced by choreography

The image of high noon at the Stormont ghost-town - with the clock striking twelve, the protagonists strutting in and Tex Ritter singing "Do not forsake me, oh my darling" - is fading.

Developments this week - in which the first and deputy first minister signal agreement on a devolution model to transfer policing and justice powers - suggest the old Western may be played out.

And the musical is back in fashion.

Indeed, the choreography would appear to have started already.

On Monday, there was that letter to the Assembly's Executive and Review Committee chairman (the DUP's Jimmy Spratt) outlining the agreement by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to have a single minister of policing and justice in charge of a single department.

The DUP and Sinn Féin have agreed not to nominate from either party, which left SDLP, Ulster Unionist and Alliance MLAs as possible contenders.

Alliance refused to dance however - by vowing not to take the post. Gerry Adams, with his dance card ready, scoffed that Alliance should have waited until it was asked.

The DUP has its eye on other possible contenders - among them Alban Maginness.

The latest piece of choreography is the news that the two governments have asked the Independent Monitoring Commission to report on whether the IRA "army council" is still in existence. Does anybody think London and Dublin would dream of asking such as question unless they are sure of a big NO?

One reporter - half joking - suggested some days ago that the DUP and Sinn Féin were having a sham fight for Gordon Brown to see what they can get out of him

So the nasty press releases that were flying out like tumbleweed in a 1950s Western ten days ago have settled.

Mark Durkan tried to choreograph his own show. The SDLP wanted the assembly recalled but there was not enough support from 30 MLAs. Mr Durkan is seeking to underscore the failure of the assembly to meet.

The Sinn Féin leader - when asked his week whether the Executive would sit down at Stormont Castle on 18 September - said he didn't know. But then he didn't know why he was so happy either. Was his good mood indicative that negotiations had gone well?

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin are hotly denying a deal has been done. They insist further negotiations are still to come.

We'll know if the mood of Mr Adams is matched by First Minister Peter Robinson when he returned, sunkissed from his Florida vacation.

This calm at Stormont does not seem to be a mere lull before the storm. Rather, it seems Sinn Féin has got its partner's attention by threatening a walk-out - and they have been working things out.

I don't think we are in a 'crisis, crisis'
Sir Reg Empey
Ulster Unionist leader

Certainly, when I bumped into one senior Sinn Féin figure at Stormont last week, he was having none of my questions about a possible crisis.

He just shook his head and declared: "Do you know who I blame?"

I could have guessed he wouldn't say the DUP, but I let him go on.

"I blame the media."

So, it's all the media's fault - although I might have pointed out that the media is only reporting the comments of his party leader who likes to use words such as "meltdown".

The first sign that the DUP and Sinn Féin may be heading for compromise came with junior minister Gerry Kelly's apparent shift on 26 July when, during an interview for Inside Politics, he said his party was open to discussing the possibility of an Alliance justice minister elected on a cross-community vote.

That was certainly different from his remarks a few years back when he insisted his party would not collude in its own exclusion.

Underlying confidence

Despite continuing deadlock over the Maze, education reform, and the Irish language, to name a few, there seems to be a certain underlying confidence in some quarters that all will be well.

Whether the stadium project goes ahead at the Maze may be clearer in the autumn too.

One senior Stormont source privately declared it dead this week - but that does not mean the transformation of the former Maze prison into a museum is dead too. The project could still stand alone in any deal.

Sir Reg Empey told Inside Politics on Saturday that he expects the prime minister to call talks in September. Even if Gordon Brown has the time, what with all his other troubles, there is a growing belief that the difficult issues will be settled.

One seasoned hack declared privately this week: "Sure, you know how it will go. We'll be stuck up there for two nights at Stormont and then it will all blow over."

Another reporter - half joking - suggested some days ago that the DUP and Sinn Féin were having a sham fight for Gordon Brown to see what they can get out of him.

Certainly Sir Reg Empey was predicting compromise when he said: "I don't think we are in a 'crisis, crisis'."

There's another good reason the Executive is likely to meet on 18 September - failure to do so would put in jeopardy a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council.


SEE ALSO
Tension mounts as backlog builds
02 Aug 08 |  Northern Ireland


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