Ian Paisley has warned that this week's deal on power-sharing may be delayed unless Gordon Brown, the chancellor, comes up with a better peace dividend for the new Assembly before Tuesday's deadline.
Paisley, Northern Ireland's first minister designate, and Martin McGuinness, his deputy, are due to meet Brown tomorrow. The DUP leader is expected to tell the chancellor that he hasn't taken the Northern Ireland parties' demand for a peace dividend seriously enough.
Paisley's warning that devolution could falter, delivered in an interview with the BBC yesterday, coincided with last-minute preparations by civil servants for what they believe will be the biggest media event in Northern Ireland's history. More than 50 camera crews are expected in Stormont on Tuesday.
Both Tony Blair, who sees it as a big legacy issue, and Bertie Ahern, who is fighting a faltering election campaign, have a large stake in a successful ceremony on Tuesday. Both prime ministers plan to be at Stormont to see Paisley sworn in as first minister alongside Martin McGuinness as his deputy. Blair and Ahern plan to have tea with McGuinness and Paisley in their Stormont offices before making speeches of congratulation in front of Parliament Buildings.
Senator Ted Kennedy will attend the ceremony as part of an American delegation led by Paula Dobriansky, the under-secretary of state for world affairs. Other foreign visitors will include the American and South African ambassadors from Dublin and Richard Powers III, a former president of the Morgan Stanley group. Bill Clinton, who is in London this week, may also attend, but this has yet to be confirmed.
Paisley said that his attendance was not guaranteed either. "All we have to say is 'all right have your little pantomime on Tuesday, but we'll not be there'," he warned Brown. "I want them to get the message that we can't possibly do justice to our country if we don't get this."
Asked if he did not intend taking office after all, he replied: "It is one of the options that we have. I don't say that we are going to do that but they had better realise that is an option.
"Do you think I am going to carry the can for the failure of the British government? Not likely, and I don't think the other side [Sinn Féin] will either. We mean business."
The DUP, Sinn Féin and the other local parties believe that Northern Ireland needs a multi-billion cash injection in grants and low-interest loans in order to improve the province's crumbling infrastructure, reduce corporation tax to allow it to compete with the republic for inward investment, and to stave off water charges, which all the parties pledged to abolish in the assembly election. Other unfunded spending pledges include the abolition of health service prescription charges and increased spending on education and health.
Paisley has been particularly unhappy that the Irish government has offered the new assembly more new money, around £400m, than the exchequer.
So far Paisley has had two meetings with Brown, the latest of them last Thursday. He says he told the chancellor, "how could I possibly be your friend when the Dublin government is giving more to this peace dividend than you are giving? I said the people would expect me to condemn you".
Mark Durkan, the SDLP leader, has described Paisley's comments as "part of a diet of head staggers and hand stands that has been characteristic of his political style". He recalled that only last month Paisley told the House of Commons that May 8 was "set in stone".
Last night senior DUP figures backed Paisley's strategy. Rev William McCrea, MP for South Antrim, said: "It is vitally important to get a financial package that is appropriate for the challenges facing the province."
Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP for Lagan Valley, said: "Paisley is absolutely right to challenge the chancellor to be more generous in the financial package."