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It's make-your-mind-up time – deal or no deal?

(William Graham, Irish News)

As the pressure-cooker atmosphere builds this week over whether a power-sharing deal is on or off, the British government has emphasised that people in Northern Ireland want their politicians to restore devolution next Monday.

The spotlight is very much on the DUP and whether Ian Paisley's party will agree to go into government with Sinn Féin by March 26 or strategically play for more time.

The belief is that Mr Paisley has certainly been told privately by the British that this time March 26 is the real deadline and that they are not bluffing in their public warnings to close down Stormont if a deal is not forthcoming.

At a Downing Street press briefing yesterday (Monday) Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said what was important was that the message from the assembly election was very clear.

He reiterated that people wanted to see devolution and they wanted to see it by next Monday and what we now had to see was whether politicians would listen to that message.

Yet again the government spokesman underlined the fact that in legislation March 26 was the deadline and therefore people had to make their minds up by then.

Irish President Mary McAleese said yesterday she absolutely believes the conditions could not be better for the completion of powersharing by the coming deadline.

On the first day of a state trip to Belgium President McAleese said the voters in Northern Ireland sent the message out loud and clear.

Meanwhile, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso has written to the leaders of Northern Ireland's four main parties offering to meet them.

He indicated he is keen to explore how the EU can continue to play a positive role underpinning the peace process.

Tomorrow Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to see Mr Paisley and other Northern Ireland politicians at Downing Street for further talks as the deadline looms.

And on Thursday a crunch moment comes when the British Chancellor Gordon Brown has discussions with the north's political leaders to outline the kind of financial package which may be available if a powersharing executive was to be put in place.

Political parties including Sinn Féin, the DUP, SDLP, UUP and Alliance have been pressing for a strong financial package which would give any incoming executive a sound footing to embark on a new programme for government and tackle the water rates issue.

Meanwhile, the Irish Times reported yesterday potential internal DUP opposition to party leader Ian Paisley concluding the deal, as he is believed to want to, by the March 26 deadline.

Pro-deal sources have indicated that a crucial meeting of DUP officers later this week is too close to call, given the determination of four of the party's nine MPs to seek to at least delay the formation of a new executive until May.

A delay could be a high-risk strategy for the DUP as this might weaken their negotiating hand after having it strengthened in the assembly election.

In the background the DUP will be all too aware of plan B which would mean the British and Irish governments co-operating in managing the northern situation if plan A failed and Stormont had to be closed down.

No-one is sure what next week will bring but it is clear the British and Irish governments will want to do everything in their power this week to finally push a power-sharing deal over the line and meet the deadline.

As is the nature of the peace process, and like all previous negotiations, this could go to the wire and involve 11th hour decisions.

March 21, 2007
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This article appeared first in the March 20, 2007 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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