Sunday Life

Paisley: We're near a deal

Reports by Chris Thornton at Leeds Castle and Alan Murray
19 September 2004

DUP leader Ian Paisley stunned delegates outside the failed Leeds Castle summit yesterday, when he declared: "We've never been closer to solving the problems that have plagued us for decades."

British and Irish officials were also up-beat last night that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein could be struck as early as this week.

In a surprisingly positive assessment, Mr Paisley said the talks had "achieved progress"on the four main issues on the agenda - an end to paramilitary activity, decommissioning, bringing stability to Stormont and policing.

Buoyed by the DUP chief's remarks, the London and Dublin governments are this weekend keeping their fingers crossed that the frustrating guillotine finish to 72 hours of talks, WOULDN'T open up a point-scoring blame-game.

With lower-level talks set to re-start on Tuesday, they had feared that, if the parties tear strips out of each other, they will destroy the progress reportedly made towards securing an end to the IRA and the destruction of its terrorist arsenal.

But Mr Paisley's up-beat assessment appears to hold out the prospect that the gap between the parties could be closed sooner rather than later.

Talks were cut off yesterday afternoon without a deal, when premiers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, seven Ulster parties and the White House's representative had to clear out of the castle to make way for two pre-booked wedding receptions.

Prime Minister Blair said the talks had nailed down the guns, but NOT the government.

But he steered clear of blaming any one party for the failure to get a plan to bring the Stormont Assembly back to life.

However, both Blair and Ahern made it clear that the sticking-point was the DUP's demand for tight reins on Executive ministers.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said: "How can any party expect to come to negotiations and not negotiate with - not talk to - other parties?"

SDLP deputy leader Alasdair McDonnell also attacked the DUP.

He said: "Negotiation is about giving and taking, and they [the DUP] wanted to take on all fronts, and give on no fronts."

But DUP leader Ian Paisley said he was proud of standing tough against yesterday's 1pm deadline.

He added: "We have never been closer to solving the problems that have plagued us for decades.

"The decommissioning of IRA weapons and dismantling of the structures of terrorism is the ultimate outcome of the discussion."

It was, however, the second item on the DUP's wish-list that caused the talks to crunch to a halt, late on Friday night.

The premiers pulled them back for five hours of talks early yesterday, but failed to close the deal.

The DUP want tougher restrictions on Executive ministers - including a mechanism which would allow the Stormont Assembly to block ministers' decisions.

But most other parties said those restrictions would turn power-sharing into straight majority rule - with the Executive and Assembly run by the DUP.

As the parties flew home to Belfast last night, one delegate said that disagreements were on mainly "technical" issues.

He said: "There are gaps, but they can be closed."

The parties are due to go back into talks at Stormont, on Tuesday. Blair and Ahern, though, said they won't get involved again.

Blair said the talks had convinced him that the parties were close to clearing away the twin problems of paramilitaries and guns.

"The governments believe that what is on offer now is reasonable - it's substantial and historic in its meaning."

But he added: "If agreement cannot be reached, when it is clear it should be, we will find a different way to move this process forward."

• Chris Thornton is Political Correspondent of The Belfast Telegraph

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